Television & video
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Streaming TV isn’t just a new way to watch. It’s a new genre.

NYC, Brussels, December 21st, 2015 (NYTimes/ James Poniewozik/SIGNIS). Netflix is getting bigger and bigger. The international provider of on-demand Internet streaming media started its subscription-based service in 1999. As of October 2015, Netflix reported having 69.17 million subscribers worldwide, including more than 43 million in the U.S. Netflix also produces and creates its own TV show, and releases the whole season at once, not one episode per week, like regular TV shows. James Poniewozik, from the NY Times asked himself: is Netflix TV?

On the one hand, sure. These days, when newspapers have video-production studios and you can watch “The Walking Dead” on your phone, “TV” is a pretty inclusive club. On the other hand, streaming shows — the original series that Netflix, Amazon and their ilk release all at once, in full seasons — are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre of their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.

In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials.

Watching a streaming series is like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that Poniewozik call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media.

With those new mechanics, comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments. So they program shows exactly when TV networks don’t. They debut series on Fridays (considered “the death slot” in network TV) and over holidays. This November and December, TV’s long winter’s nap of reruns, the streaming services are unloading season after full season of original TV.

Just so, binge-watching assumes a different kind of transaction with the viewer.
Weekly TV thrives by creating a constant state of tension, teasing you to come back next week. Streaming relies on The Suck. Of course, no one’s stopping you from watching a series more slowly, but that changes the experience. Declaring whether it’s better or worse to binge fast or slow is like arguing whether it’s better to see the Grand Canyon from a helicopter or by foot. It’s beautiful either way, but it’s different.

When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching — mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show.

Streaming programmers are well aware of how The Suck works. According to Netflix data, most streaming viewers take three or four episodes to decide to commit to a season — meaning that streaming services can assume more patience (I’ll try just one more) than network programmers who assume the pilot is make-or-break.
In fact, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has said he considers the first season of a series, not the first episode, to be the “pilot.” So its premieres tend not to grab you so much as let you sink in.

This approach has advantages. With a few hours to seal the deal, you don’t need to load up your first episode with gimmicks, and you can avoid the tedious network practice of “repeating the pilot”: telling repetitive stories in the early episodes to accommodate latecomers. You can pack a series with story and incident and trust viewers not to forget details.

But it can also mean lethargic, shapeless narratives that rely on The Suck to keep viewers watching sheerly on the sunk-costs principle.

Network TV shows, which produce new episodes while the seasons air, can course-correct midseason when ratings drop or a new character is rejected. The rise of online fan forums and social media made the dialogue even more intense. This could improve a show or encourage pandering, but it was, at least, a tool. Streaming series, each season handed down from the mountain on tablets, lose this tool entirely.
What Netflix does have is a tremendous amount of data on what people have already liked to watch. Do they like adventure drama? Make “Marco Polo.” Drug sagas like “Breaking Bad”? Give them “Narcos.” That’s probably excellent business, but it doesn’t encourage great leaps into the unknown.

This may be one reason that the streaming services have yet to create a truly great drama. It’s their comedies that have been some of the past year’s best TV on any platform. Serial drama, on the other hand, is potentially the most changed by bingeing — which means its creators have the most to learn about how to make it, and the audience, about how to watch. So far, streaming has best served a certain kind of plot-heavy, competent-but-not-revolutionary drama.

The critic Alan Sepinwall, diagnosing this issue, argued recently that streaming series need to relearn the TV art of making tightly crafted episodes within larger serial arcs; “Your TV show,” he wrote, “doesn’t have to be a novel.” Streaming dramas aren’t novels. But they’re also not just TV shows as we’ve known them, delivered through a different pipe. And they won’t reach their full potential by simply imitating what already exists. The early days of broadcast gave us great shows, like “Playhouse 90,” that were essentially live theater that happened to be televised, but the medium didn’t come into its own until it learned to use what made it distinctive — the ability to tell open-ended ongoing stories. Likewise, streaming needs to learn to use its supersized format better not fight against it.

Conversely, streaming may not be the best format for every serial story. Matthew Weiner, the creator of the dense, deeply allusive “Mad Men,” has said that if he ever made a Netflix series, he’d argue for a weekly schedule to build in digestion time.
More so than any recent innovation in TV, streaming has the potential, even the likelihood, to create an entirely new genre of narrative: one with elements of television, film and the novel, yet different from all of those. But it’s going to take time for all of us to master it.


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