Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"How We Watch"

This is one I have no strong opinion about, primarily because I have experience with one way, but little to no experience with the other, so if I delineated a preference, it would be the product of prejudice over personal knowledge, and nobody wants to read that.  Especially this writer, who prides himself on his, possibly illusory, evenhandedness. 

I have written recently about the way in which technological advances altered the way (half-hour) television shows were written.  This led me to consider the technological advances in the way television shows are currently consumed. 

And now, the “Nostalgia Portion” of the program.  Have a seat, slip on your “Mouska-ears” and join me nostalgically back in time.

There was a time, kiddies, before taping, before TiVo, before DVR (if that’s different from TiVo), before Netflix, when, if you wanted to watch a certain show, you had to be in front of your television at the specific time that particular show was being aired.  Otherwise, you did not get to see it.  (Except possibly during summer reruns when some of the episodes were rebroadcast.) 

This was a time when there were only three channels (unless you lived in Canada where there were also Canadian channels, which I never watched unless there was a hockey game on one of them.) 

At that juncture in televiewing history, the schedule was so rudimentary, you could actually memorize when every single program on television was on.  (The weaker of memory had TV Guide to assist them.  I was a regular subscriber, but it was mostly for the covers.  Some of them were artistic masterpieces.  I saved all of them.  Then I went to camp, and when I came home, my entire collection had mysteriously disappeared.)

In those days, every program was “Appointment Television” because, if you missed that appointment, you missed the program.  Which was – wait for it from the Old Guy – an arguably more exciting experience.  Think of the difference between having candy once a week and having candy whenever you want it.  The latter sounds better in theory, but in practice, you ultimately arrive at “Candy again?”, and you make a face.  Ending candy as a once highly anticipated rarity.

The now available possibility of “Programming On Demand” – boxed sets of entire series, Netflix, and a rerun service my Time-Warner cable provider market-savvily labels “On Demand” also makes it possible for, what they call, “binge viewing”, wherein, if you don’t have a life and you prefer it to watching a ballgame (which others of us without a life enjoy) you can watch an entire series in a single sitting.

Here’s where I go sideways a little, but it’s all connected, trust me. 

The new technology has encouraged show creators to devise, as has been prevalent in soap operas since their inception, extended – often series-length – story arcs (because, unlike when there weren’t any, there are now new-technologically-provided mechanisms for catching up.

In the era before these mechanisms, writers were required to encapsulate each episode, so that every story terminated at the end of that particular broadcast.  Networks seemed to know the audiences preferred it that way.  And this time, they were right. 

Nothing made an old-time viewer angrier than to commit to an episode (usually of an hour-long series), only to be confronted with the dreaded “To Be Continued” at the end of it.  “To Be Continued” made old-time viewers crazy.  Nobody told us ahead of time.  It was like,

“We’re going to need another hour from you.  And if you’re for some reason unavailable ‘same time, next week’, the entire hour you just sat through will have been entirely wasted.”

I can’t tell you how much we hated that.   You got close to the end of the episode, and you felt the distinct sense that things were not, as expected, wrapping up.  The words, “Oh, no!” may have actually been vocalized at that point, our thoughts being, “This episode may have been decent enough to waste an hour on.  But two hours?  I want my money back!”

From a writing standpoint, filming individualized episodes allowed the show runners (or the networks) to “bury” the episodes that did not turn out well.  Since they was no sequential storytelling involved, it didn’t matter in which order the episodes were broadcast.  A “stinkeroo” could thus be strategically scheduled when another network was presenting a blockbuster, like, say the Oscars when they were popular, and nobody would even know it was on.  (Except for the person who wrote it, who undoubtedly believed that that “clunker” episode was considerably better than people believed.)

Another reason for self-contained storylines was that, since show producers (specifically, the lucky ones who made hits) had no control over the order in which the episodes would be broadcast in syndication, an extended story-arc series would become a hodgepodge due to “out of sequence” presentation, turning it into an audience-befuddling syndication failure.

(A by-product of individualized episode-writing was the accepted “conceit” that every episode was separate and distinct, the most recent outing rarely, if ever, referencing anything that had happened before.  This anomalous storytelling arrangement generated a weird form of “Episodic Amnesia.”  For example, in the course of its still-record 635 episodes, it allowed Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon to be shot a hundred or more times without anyone asking or even wondering, “Why isn’t he dead by now?”  Or at least limping.  The week after a gunshot wound, Matt Dillon came back looking as fresh as if he had just returned from vacation.  He never once acted “hurt.”  In addition, Matt Dillon also killed at least one desperado in every episode.  Imagine “binge viewing” the marshal mowing down 635 opponents.  Or even fifty.  You might develop some serious concerns about his homicidal proclivities.)

Somebody once gave me a boxed set of my favorite hour show possibly of all time, The West Wing.  I watched a few episodes and then gave up, partly out of diminishing interest, and partly because of certain technical difficulties I was unable to overcome.  (I was happy I could get the thing to play on my television.  Helpful Tip:  You have to switch to “Video One” or you don’t get a picture.  But you probably knew that already.)

Granted, I had already seen those West Wing episodes, many of them repeatedly, so there was no impelling urgency.  Still, some people enjoy re-watching all the episodes of their favorite series at the same time.  Others appreciate the new technology’s never-before-broadcast series, which, since all the episodes have already been produced, they have the option of watching from beginning to end.

I’m not convinced I would have the patience.

This from a man who’s been known to watch up to five successive episodes of the Law & Order:  SVU “Familiar Faces” Marathon without moving from his seat.

So there’s that.

Hey, I never promised you consistency.

Though I am not entire comfortable with its opposite.  

1 comment:

Pidge said...

You are so right! Wed night at 9... Dick Van Dyke. Nowadays, I have no appointments on TV.
. As soon as I like something, they move it around and I can't find it, so I give up.
I remember how exciting it was, reading the little teasers in the TV Guide, hinting at what was to come the next week. Now, who cares?
Must be getting old....