the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Deirdre Macken

THE au­di­ence has gone. But you sus­pected that. Sit­ting in your lounge room watch­ing re­peats of tired com­edy se­ries, you feel the lone­li­ness. Ev­ery­one else has left the couch of pas­sive en­ter­tain­ment. You’ve heard them gos­sip­ing about the Red Wed­ding ( Game of Thrones). You’ve won­dered about all the talk about the os­trich farm ( Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment) and some of your friends are fret­ting that Break­ing Bad will, in­deed, end badly be­cause the writer cried as he wrapped it up. But you weren’t there. You were stuck on the couch of net­work tele­vi­sion won­der­ing ex­actly when the rest of the au­di­ence left.

Ask any­one un­der the age of 30 what they’re watch­ing and there’s a good chance it’s not what you’re watch­ing. They’re not even watch­ing it on a TV set. And they’re cer­tainly not view­ing to a sched­ule.

Take binge TV. As the name sug­gests, binge TV is about con­sum­ing a huge num­ber of episodes of your favourite pro­gram in one sit­ting. It’s the pre­ferred way of watch­ing edgy se­ries such as Break­ing Bad, Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment, House of Cards, Home­land and Game of Thrones. Binge TV is like lin­ing up shots. You su­per-size your se­rial con­sump­tion and boast­ing rights be­long to those who can sit on the couch long enough for the sun to rise on their ob­ses­sion. It’s what hap­pens when there’s a lot of cheap TV avail­able any­where, any­time. You start and you just can’t stop. It’s a whopper. Do you want fries with that?

But there’s also an­other new au­di­ence, the picky flicker. Picky flick­ers may be sit­ting in front of a TV set but they’ll have a com­puter, tablet or phone on their lap and their at­ten­tion is di­vided be­tween chat, games, screen TV and streamed TV. Just to mix it up, picky flick­ers are of­ten also se­rial su­per-sizers. One day they’re camped in front of the TV long enough to grow a beard, and the next morn­ing they’re sit­ting on the bus and swip­ing through YouTube videos on their phones.

So where’s the TV au­di­ence? Well, there are mo­ments when a de­cent-sized au­di­ence can be found sit­ting in front of boxes — they are the fi­nal weeks of The Voice, the mo­ment the win­ner of The Big­gest Loser steps on the scales.

But even th­ese events are mas­saged by the buzz of so­cial me­dia. Peo­ple find out about them on their so­cial net­works, they comment on them on Twit­ter, then post the best mo­ments on their net­works.

So TV has been co-opted by so­cial me­dia. ‘‘ Talk­a­bil­ity’’ is the new strat­egy in town — get talked about on so­cial me­dia or shut up shop. Some­times the talk brings an in­flux of view­ers to mo­ments of live TV — Bill Gates on Q&A — but most of­ten it slowly builds a de­voted fol­low­ing. Whether TV ex­ec­u­tives like it or not, they are los­ing con­trol of their con­tent, of the broad­cast of con­tent, of the tim­ing and quan­tity of con­sump­tion of their con­tent. And, in­evitably, they are chang­ing the con­tent that’s on of­fer. Like fast food com­pa­nies that tai­lor menus to the Whopper cus­tomers, con­tent mak­ers are tai­lor­ing sto­ry­lines to the view­ing di­ets of their au­di­ences.

A few weeks ago the pro­duc­ers of Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment re­leased all 15 episodes on the one day so view­ers could choose ei­ther to watch them at one sit­ting or cre­ate their own sched­ule of view­ing.

Sim­i­larly, the cre­ators of House of Cards say they think of the se­ries as hav­ing chap­ters rather than episodes: they are cre­at­ing a very long movie rather than a se­ries.

DreamWorks has just an­nounced it’s cre­at­ing 300 hours of pro­gram­ming for stream­ing, break­ing its long-held strat­egy of two block­buster movies a year. And, fi­nally, lo­cal net­works are be­gin­ning to cater for the new au­di­ences. SBS, for in­stance, an­nounced re­cently that SBS On De­mand would of­fer ev­ery episode of se­lected se­ries af­ter the broad­cast of the first one.

All net­works are still strug­gling with the new au­di­ence.

You could feel sorry for the TV ex­ec­u­tives, ex­cept that for so long they tried to sand­bag the tide. They messed around with start­ing times, hi­jacked episodes mid­stream, changed times­lots and ran re­peats through new episodes to milk the mo­ment. They ma­nip­u­lated us but we were al­ready on the way out of the room. They couldn’t think out­side the box. And now it’s too late be­cause the ac­tion is hap­pen­ing out­side the box.

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