Live TV disappeared from my life long ago, apart from major breaking news and the occasional sporting event. At first, with a video cassette recorder and later with a digital video recorder, I saved network and other programming to watch later, fast-forwarding through all the annoying commercials on the VCR and liberally pressing the 30-second skip-ahead button on the DVR.
That was time-shifting by hours or days. Now, thanks to DVD rentals and internet streaming, I time-shift by seasons, even years, and the commercials don’t enter the picture at all.
What I’m missing is currency – knowing what people are talking about when they refer to this or that part of popular culture. That’s nothing new for me: I am the only person I know who has never seen even one episode of Seinfeld (though I do know, by osmosis, what the “Soup Nazi” means).
But I do catch up with other programs, often long after they’ve premiered, and typically, by “binge watching” – viewing many episodes in one sitting – on planes or in hotel rooms between travels. This is how I discovered (after many recommendations from friends and critics) the brilliance of The Wire – and it’s how I’m now checking out Homeland’s creepily effective first season. Of course, Netflix (disclosure: I own a small number of shares) has reportedly done well by encouraging the technique with its recently released remake of House of Cards.
The name “binge-viewing” feels inappropriate. I’d prefer to call it immersive viewing, like sitting through Wagner’s Ring Cycle for 15 hours over a few days, as some opera fans are known to do. The notion that we need to ruminate on our TV shows for a week before watching the next episode is much more about what programmers need than what the audiences want.
I don’t know what TV producers think of people like me, but it can’t be good. We are deliberately refusing to participate in the initial run of their shows, where they and their host networks make big profits from advertising. I’m guessing that the ancillary money from DVD rentals and streaming fall into the category of bonuses rather than core revenues. So, to the extent that viewing is shifting to commercial-free arenas, the traditional business model is surely in jeopardy.
The next generation of professional motion picture storytellers will be liberated from the weekly format, just as blogging and other online media liberated newspaper journalists from the 24-hour news cycle. They’ll still worry about whether they can: a) get an audience; and b) get paid. But they won’t worry about story cycles that cater to a 40-minute show (roughly, the amount of actual content in an hour-long block, minus the commercials) that runs each week.
TV mini-series – House of Cards fits this format by any standard – will dominate quality long-form video: self-contained dramas with story arcs that allow for exploration of characters and subplots. It’s been said that short stories adapt best into movies, because novels have too much nuance. I look forward to novels being more fully realized on-screen as producers and directors change their approach.
For audiences, the shift is bringing in a golden age of storytelling in a serial format. I used to believe that on-demand video would let me watch anything ever made, anytime. But that was always a fantasy, because Hollywood will find a way to make it too difficult.
When I got a DVR with a high-capacity disk, I found myself recording dozens of hours of programs I might want to watch. It was a fine interim step toward on-demand, because I always knew that when I got home there would be something that I actually wanted to watch. Today and tomorrow, any movie or TV fan will always be able to find something interesting to watch.
My only worry in all this is about privacy: we are letting big companies and, by extension, governments know what we read and see in an online world. We need to find a way to restore the ability to read and watch anonymously, or we risk an essential liberty. I’m not sure if we can have it both ways, but we’d better try.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010