Per­form­ing Arts

Are we cre­at­ing a new art­form by the way we now watch tele­vi­sion and what are the im­pli­ca­tions for the in­dus­try and our health, won­ders Jane Watkins

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Jane Watkins wants her TV and she wants it now

When I was a teenager, I spent sev­eral fruit­less months try­ing to get my par­ents to buy a pro­jec­tor to screen Star Wars, which was the only way to see it in the seem­ingly end­less years be­tween it be­ing shown in the cin­ema and it ap­pear­ing on tele­vi­sion. now, fol­low­ing the ad­vent of video, DVD, Blu-ray and spe­cial edi­tions, I can even watch it on my phone on the train.

That kind of wait seems in­con­ceiv­able these days, when we’re con­tin­u­ally bom­barded with boxsets, catch-up and on-de­mand, stream­ing ser­vices. If some­one rec­om­mends a tele­vi­sion show over din­ner, you can down­load all of it be­fore pud­ding. For a long time, ad­mit­ting to even watch­ing TV was so­cial sui­cide, but now you’re way be­hind the curve if you’re not avidly binge­watch­ing the shows ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about.

But are we los­ing some­thing with this end­less all-you-can-eat buf­fet of con­tent? Yes, you can im­me­di­ately find out what hap­pens next, but you lose the fren­zied shiver of an­tic­i­pa­tion wait­ing for the next episode. Are we cre­at­ing some­thing new watch­ing this way and what does it mean for the fu­ture?

Sim­i­lar ques­tions have been asked each time changes oc­cur in ev­ery art­form. We for­get now that Dick­ens’s nov­els were pub­lished in se­rial form, but we take it for granted that we lose noth­ing by hav­ing ac­cess to the whole novel (fans of binge­watch­ing point out that we don’t read a book a chap­ter at a time).

Films were orig­i­nally lim­ited by the nascent tech­nol­ogy, but sur­vived the shocks of sound, colour, Tech­ni­color and so on to be­come part of our cul­ture— un­til home video came along and shook its foun­da­tions. now, thanks to the ris­ing cost of tick­ets, attendances are at a 22-year low and the in­dus­try is strug­gling to sur­vive.

Per­haps in the fu­ture, we’ll set­tle down in our in­di­vid­ual homes, don our vir­tual-re­al­ity glasses and ‘meet’ to watch a film in an ide­alised cin­ema. Or we’ll down­load a new film at a time that suits us and have a choice of ver­sions. If we dis­cover we’re short of time, our vir­tual as­sis­tant will speed the film up or trim it to our de­sired length. All of these are cur­rently in devel­op­ment.

And now these shifts are be­ing felt on tele­vi­sion, too, both in the way we ac­cess pro­grammes and in­creas­ingly how they’re be­ing made. It’s be­come ac­cept­able to binge-watch shows— ‘I don’t like the term “binge”,’ says a TV ex­ec­u­tive, ‘“marathon” sounds more cel­e­bra­tory’. Pro­po­nents cite the abil­ity to fol­low com­plex plot­lines and mul­ti­ple char­ac­ter arcs, which is driv­ing

the pop­u­lar­ity of shows such as Game of Thrones (GOT) and Or­ange is the New Black, but, sur­pris­ingly, older pro­grammes such as Lost are get­ting a fil­lip.

Some sci­en­tists think we’re ac­tu­ally hard-wired to ab­sorb our cul­ture this way. Ac­cord­ing to psy­chi­a­trist Nor­man Doidge: ‘We get into a trance with great sto­ry­telling… It can seem more real from a neu­ro­log­i­cal point of view.’ And we’re also learn­ing these new ways of watch­ing TV by word of mouth, too. Net­flicks’s Todd Yellin be­lieves the be­hav­iour ‘spreads vi­rally and it’s learnt at a so­ci­etal level’. Stud­ies have also found that click­ing to start the next episode trig­gers the plea­sure re­cep­tors in our brains in the same way as drugs and al­co­hol.

Net­flix cur­rently spends about $6 bil­lion (£4.8 bil­lion) on orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming, which gar­nered it an as­ton­ish­ing 54 Emmy nom­i­na­tions in 2016, and

Ama­zon is in­creas­ingly be­ing lauded for the qual­ity of its com­mis­sioned dra­mas such as Stranger Things, Trans­par­ent

and Grace and Frankie as well as Ama­zon Plus shows such as

Vik­ings and The Amer­i­cans. Much of this is tai­lored to­wards a view­er­ship who will watch mul­ti­ple episodes at a time and sto­ries that don’t fol­low the tra­di­tional model, which had a plot struc­ture geared to­wards hooks to keep an au­di­ence com­ing back af­ter those few mes­sages from our spon­sors.

In­deed, if ads drive you mad, give thanks that you’re not in Amer­ica, where an hour-long show ef­fec­tively lasts 38 to 42 min­utes. Watch­ing boxsets from stream­ing ser­vices means that Amer­i­can au­di­ences are re­ject­ing the con­stant in­ter­rup­tions of net­work tele­vi­sion.

Break­ing Bad was the show that strad­dled the two eras of Tv—word of mouth brought more and more peo­ple in and they gob­bled it up in ad­vance of its cli­matic fi­nal sea­son. House of

Cards then be­came the tem­plate of how to bring an au­di­ence in who wants to watch a se­ries as a whole and is hun­gry for witty, com­plex script­ing. The in­dus­try is now scrab­bling to find ways to keep the at­ten­tion of an au­di­ence that’s never had to wait for their con­tent and who must rec­on­cile this with the sheer time it takes to make episodic tele­vi­sion (just ask GOT fans).

If you are go­ing to set­tle down for a few hours, min­imise the im­pact on your health by get­ting up and ex­er­cis­ing ev­ery now and then and try­ing to avoid graz­ing on fatty, sug­ary snacks and hav­ing too much to drink (al­though the lat­ter may help with the fi­nal sea­son of Break­ing Bad). Re­mem­ber the real-life loved ones you may be ne­glect­ing, don’t for­get you do have to go to work —oh, and do try to get some sleep in some­where!

View­ers have been un­able to re­sist the Vik­ings in­va­sion—it’s been a huge hit for Ama­zon

Ta­boo, which has brought in seven mil­lion view­ers, will be one of the first shows to be made avail­able as a boxset on BBC iplayer

Your next ob­ses­sion: su­perb writ­ing and act­ing fuel The

Amer­i­cans’ Cold War sus­pense

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