Saturday, May 9, 2009

Alas, Poor TV, We Hardly Know Ye!

Why are 'good TV shows' becoming more numerous and frequent while the 'really great movies' are becoming harder to find? Awhile back, I played with a Facebook application that lets you pick your top five favorite movies of all time, top five TV shows of all time, etc., and I had a more difficult time thinking of movies that have made an impression on me than I did for TV.

For the movies, I took about 15 - 20 minutes just to peruse my DVD collection before I could finalize my selection. I already knew what I'd do for TV. That took about one or two minutes, tops! Three of the five TV shows I selected are currently in production, while the other two have just recently been canceled; unable to return for a 2009 season. Is this a shifting change in economics? Is it a shifting change in people's entertainment habits? Or, is the medium of TV evolving faster than the 'dusty, archaic' reels of still frames that make up the films we affectionately call 'move-ies' [sic] or 'motion pictures'?

The cinematic nature of TV is growing in leaps and bounds while box office numbers continue to plummet; and they only spike at what Hollywood might call a 'blockbuster'; a 'summer release'. TV has never truly been episodic until about 10 - 15 years ago, and even then, it wasn't as intricate as what we saw with the introduction to shows like LOST or Pushing Daisies. And, it's interesting to note, that LOST went on to become a huge success while Pushing Daisies was thrown in to the category of "existing before its time", due to its recent cancellation.

The Evolution of TV
In the 1950s, there was no such thing as a comprehensive storyline on TV. Studio executives believed that having a story that built upon itself, or continued past the allotted 30 or 60 minute time slot would only confuse the viewer and prevent them from continuing to tune-in. What if they missed an episode? What if the show went into syndication? The episodes would likely air out-of-order. How could people keep up if a progressive storyline were added to the shows?

The theory was sound and understandable, but really did not give much credit to the audience. To be fair, a case could be made that today’s viewers are a bit savvier due to being more technologically literate and are used to more information input with the advent of the Internet. And, with websites like Hulu, one can even watch ‘TV’ on their own schedule. But before all that, the Brady family, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, and the Cleavers – they all had their weekly antics whereby they’d learn their lesson and then be doomed to forget it before the airing of the next week’s episode.

Later, shows like Happy Days, M.A.S.H., and even modern sitcoms like That 70’s Show only allowed the occasional ‘two-parter’. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files added an occasional plot-point that added to an overall plot, but those were sprinkled throughout the entire series (X-Files took this boundary farther than any other show of its time.). Next to crawl out of the primordial ooze of Television came shows like LOST, Jericho, and The West Wing. These shows created stories that hardly, if ever, have a stand-alone episode, with LOST arguably being the most complex story to ever hit the airwaves. If you miss a week or you don’t see every episode in chronological order, you’ll be left stranded and in a more deserted place than those survivors from Oceanic 815.

With the majority of our understanding about this medium coming from an age before the Internet, I believe we no longer understand this medium at all. You’ve all heard the nicknames for TV and TV viewers: idiot box, the boob-tube, couch potatoes – TV has a poor public image and the question one should ask themselves – is it a fair representation? Surely shows like Jeopardy dispel the idea of TV not being educational and shows like LOST dispel the idea that TV can’t be cinematic. The pilot episode, landing between $10 and $14 million, was the most expensive pilot ever made in ABC’s history. The average pilot budget is $4 million. (1) If the industry sees the need to adapt, shouldn’t we?

TV vs. Movies
You hang out with one friend for one hour every single week. You hang out with a different friend for about two hours, maybe 5-10 times per year. Who would you know better? Which friend would you bond with more?

I won’t deny the power of the movies. Colin McGinn writes a great book on that subject, titled “The Power of Movies”. While commercial advertising occurs for roughly 13-20 minutes before the movie, the movie itself is advertisement-free (not counting the subliminal commercialism of product placement). This is the biggest strength that movies have over TV, but there are limitations to the cinema.

First, as noted in the above example, you spend more time with Jack, Kate and Sawyer than you spend with Hugh Jackman, as Wolverine (not taking in to account repeat 'visits'). Time allows you to build more ‘intimacy’ with these characters and, as such, more details can be shared than in a movie (unless it’s a series like Star Wars).

Secondly, is the factor of cost. TV is more readily accessible, for FREE, than with movies, not accounting for peer to peer (P2P) downloads and file sharing, which deserve an argument all to themselves. In 2007, TV sets were in 98.2% of all households (2) and yet, only 172 million Americans were ‘movie-goers’ for that same year. That's only roughly 57% of the US population (3).

Finally, there is a wider selection of programming to select from. Hollywood produced 610 films in 2008, (4) while TV, at all times, has at least 24 unique shows, on each channel, per day. That’s a minimum of 16,224 episodes or 1-hour slots filled on any given day; or 5,921,760 1-hour slots per year. While it’s true that more does not always equal better, the amount of good content that TV produces is getting more and more noticed each year. No longer are the majority of great programming being lost due to no one knowing about their existence.

Advertising – Does it work?
Another mutation in the species of TV involves advertising. While shows of the early 1950s wrote entire plots around products, and while current programming immerses itself in advertising breaks, the point has always been about selling things instead of telling the story (5).

Now that bandwidth is allowing for programming online, the business model of television is morphing yet again. Online, there are fewer ads (some are shorter than network ads) and that allows for more concentration and focus on story. Currently, 98% of online programming exists as video-on-demand file playback for present and past TV content. In the future, web-exclusive content will increase as TV begins streaming online.

The convenience of this trend is going to be -- well -- extremely convenient. Programs can be viewed during their time slots or, in an archive format. As an archive, episodes can be watched back to back at the viewers choice of time and date. Not to mention, stories will have more freedom to become more complex, and with the customization of marketing and just-in-time facets of viewing preferences, TV will finally have the ability to grow beyond its theatrical counter-part. It's true, the TV and PC are slowly merging together as one, and while video may have killed the radio star; it will not be near the elaborate murder that the HTPC (Home Theater Personal Computer) will commit against the cinema. In fact, movies will end up assimilated in to the HTPC collective faster than anyone can say, "Locutus of Borg".

This is a logical progression since people are staying home longer and spending less money on outside entertainment. The 'big screen' of the movie theater has been replaced by 40 - 70+ inch LCD and plasma monitors, creating 'big screens' at home. And, for added picture quality, people are enjoying the luxury of TV on DVDs, HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray.

That brings us to Netflix, an online disc rental company with no late-fees. You can rent 1, 2 or 3 discs at a time, keep them as long as you like, and when you mail them back, the next 1, 2, or 3 items on your queue are sent to your home. The turnaround on this is about 1-2 days from the time you mail out the discs you are returning.

Netflix also offers hours of content online through their ‘instant view’ feature, commercial-free. All of this is available for a monthly rate, depending on the plan you purchase, and video rental brick and mortar stores are none to happy about it. But in this day and age, do we really need as many physical stores?

And let's not forget DVRs, like DISH or TiVo. You can pause and rewind live television, fast forward through commercials (as long as the ad is not currently broadcasting at the time you are watching the program), and, record a show you won't be able to see during its scheduled time, by having it recorded directly to the DVR's internal hard drive. It's like having a VCR, but without the need to insert a cassette.

With all these great innovations, people are moving back to the home theater system and television studios are adapting nicely to this change. The only problem though, as I see it, is that the advertising model has not changed with these technologies. The industry is in talks to create a model that customizes ads to each specific user. This won’t work on TV (broadcasting) that easily, but online it is easily done. But then, people have ad blockers and they also ignore the ads.

This brings us to the root of it all – has advertising ever worked? Naturally, ads can influence the mindset of a consumer or get them to remember a catchy jingle or product name, but can it ever truly be shown that 46% of McDonalds previous quarterly sales were the result of an ad campaign sponsoring that hot new TV show?

If McDonalds quarterly sales went up by 20%, the most that could be said is that sales were up by 20%. It could be because of the ads broadcasting in general, but there is no way to tell that a specific purchase was the result of a specific time slot in which the ad was aired, without conducting surveys. And, even then, it only accounts for a small sampling.

Word-of-mouth has consistently been shown to be more effective, and not as costly, but TV would not work with this model either. Likely, the customization will end up being the most pragmatic solution, but for it to work, studios cannot inject online viewing with the same number of ads as they do with broadcasting methods or people will tune-out. Especially as ‘TV’ becomes stream-able online.

What seems to work best is similar to the days of early Television. Have one sponsor cover the cost of the entire episode, but add a modern twist by allowing the sponsor to cover the episode on a per-view basis. Each time an episode of Dollhouse is viewed online, it can be covered by one sponsor, for each time the episode is played, or one sponsor could cover all plays of an episode over a specified amount of time. Or, as McDonalds did with Hulu on May 9th, sponsor the entire website for a set amount of time ('prime-time'), getting a mention before each episode play, but allowing every file to play commercial free during that time. These are all a great start, but the truth of the matter is that advertising must continue to evolve or the medium will suffer altogether.

Those who think TV has little to offer need to restudy the medium in light of these new trends and changes. They need to look at people like Neil Postman and Marshal McLuhan and realize that they formed a great foundation. But, they are not the final authority on television. Television is no longer confined to a tiny screen in the living room. It's online, on mobile phones, iPods, and even DVD and Blu-Ray. It's now a wireless medium, far beyond what Postman or McLuhan ever seemed to envision.

True, programming offers more eye candy than ever before, but it also offers us more to think about. As an English student might critique their favorite piece of literature, TV definitely deserves another look and a bit more positive, optimistic one at that! TV deserves another chance!

    3. A ‘movie-goer’ is defined as someone who attended at least one movie in a 12-month period. 127 million ‘movie-goers’ in 2007 were reported as part of the MPAA's 2007 Movie Attendance Study.
    5. This model was brought over from radio days. For example, Abbot and Costello talked constantly about Camel cigarettes, smoked them, or would fit slogans and product information in to the plot-lines. Recently, I discovered that the CW still follows this model with their show, One Tree Hill.

Additional Resources:

    2. The following attachments are reports created by the MPAA. I've included them here for easy download access. To learn more about the MPAA's studies, visit their site at:

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