How streaming services are changing TV
There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the phrase “Previously, on…” popping up at the start of an episode. A short summary of events will follow which, although it lacks all the depth and excitement of the events themselves, should at least allow you to understand everything else you’re about to see.
It’s a technique with which viewers have become intimately familiar. For a show’s most ardent fans, who have watched every nail-biting moment the show has offered them, it can be a frustrating minute or two to sit through. “I’ve already seen this!” they cry, gnashing their teeth. “Get on with it! I want to find out what happens – show me the good stuff!”
Perhaps more annoying still is when these segments are included on a DVD or Blu-ray box set. You’ve watched forty minutes of pulse-pounding action which culminates in an exquisite cliff-hanger and naturally, even though you promised yourself you would go do the washing up, you find yourself navigating to the next episode because you just can’t help yourself. But on hitting “play”, the first thing you find yourself watching is a summary of the episode you’ve just seen.
Of course, although this is indeed frustrating, it is also an inevitable part of the medium. A television show is designed to have an episodic format. Show in its native habitat of broadcast rather than DVD, a “Previously, on…” is necessary to catch people up to speed on things they might have missed or forgotten. Otherwise, a show risks alienating viewers who can’t understand what’s going on. One show which charmingly referenced this fact directly was Chuck, which often opened with the hero saying: “Hi, I’m Chuck. Here are a few things you might need to know, or maybe you just forgot.”
The point about these summary introductions is not that they are an annoyance, but that they are a necessary part of the medium. While a show’s episodes must stand alone, they must also combine to make a coherent narrative which people can follow. Joss Whedon’s Firefly – now a cult science-fiction classic – was cancelled after only fourteen episodes, and one of the main reasons it failed was because it was scheduled out of its intended order; people simply couldn’t understand what was going on.
While fans of Firefly are consistently (and rightfully) enraged by the treatment it received at the hands of Fox, in recent years scheduling has become less important. Where recording off the television once required a lengthy setup with tapes or DVDs, every channel now has a catch-up service, and series record can be set up at the push of a button. Missing an episode of your favourite show is certainly not impossible, but it has become a much tougher task.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that television shows are (somewhat paradoxically) moving away from television. On-demand services such as Netflix are able to provide quick and easy access to hundreds of shows which, streamed over the internet, don’t even require you to pick up the remote. Anyone who has watched a Netflix original series like Orange Is the New Black will have noted the lack of any “Previously, on…” in these shows. After all, why would you need one? You have all the information – all of the previous episodes – available at the push of a button, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been watching it from the beginning anyway.
This fact, which seems at first glance to be largely irrelevant, is actually very important. When Netflix picked up Arrested Development – another Fox series cancelled before its time – for a fourth season, the result was very different from what was expected. Rather than the Arrested Development of old, Season 4 followed a different character with each episode. The main cast were rarely all together, and certain strange goings-on remained unexplained until three or four episodes down the line when it was shown from someone else’s viewpoint.
While this change in format received a mixed reception from fans and critics alike, it also demonstrates a canny understanding of a fact which has escaped many people: that on-demand services such as Netflix are fundamentally different to traditionally scheduled television. People watch it in a different way. Arrested Development is the proof; because they didn’t have to wait for a new episode each week, many fans chose to binge and watch all fifteen episodes in one go.
Advances in technology are allowing television series to tell different kinds of stories than they used to. Where many shows used to tell a separate story with each episode – such as in detective shows like Midsomer Murders – this is no longer necessary. When viewers can start watching a show from the very beginning whenever they so choose, and never miss an episode thanks to catch-up services, there are fewer worries that people will fail to understand what’s going on.
Of course, this isn’t to say that shows are entirely immune to confusion. Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor on Doctor Who was characterised by a set of storylines so vast and complex that, by the time of his demise at the long awaited Siege of Trenzalore, nobody could remember how they’d begun. Some of the blame for this can be lain at the feet of executive producer Steven Moffat, whose imagination overreached itself and created something almost incomprehensible. Perhaps the problem was in maintaining the overarching plot for four series (and a year of special episodes), a longer duration than was really tenable.
But away from traditional television, on-demand services still provide an exciting new way to tell stories. This was a fact realised by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, who saw an opportunity to experiment with the format. The result was far from perfect, but it still goes to show that more can be achieved with episodic storytelling than we are currently seeing. Whether there will be any further experimentation remains to be seen, and Hurwitz is so far the only person to take up the gauntlet in earnest. As it becomes increasingly common for on-demand services to commission exclusive shows, however, one can’t help wondering whether someone else might not be brave enough to try something new.