The Second Coming of Television

The Beast

-with sincere apologies to W.B Yeats.

Blogging and blogging in widening participation
The ‘twoten to’ cannot follow the timeline;
Schedules fall apart; the box-set cannot hold;
Cyber-anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The opinion-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocent viewing is drowned;
WordPress lacks all conviction, while ‘tumblr.’
Is full of passionate intensity.
Surely some new form of viewing is at hand.
#SecondComing Hardly is that trending
When a vast Image out of the wiki farm
Spams my stream from somewhere in the Darknet.

If we can evoke Yeats so easily (or rather not too clumsily), then something must be up, right! This must all mean something. If we dig around on Wikipedia long enough, or seek out opinion pieces from respected newspapers, we will surely find out what it all means. Unfortunately the birth of something new is rarely documented well. But this is the internet, so we must try.

We are at the beginning of a whole new form of television, you can tell this because everyone keeps heralding it, but no one can quite agree what it is. We have glimpsed the shape of it, noted some of its recognizable features, but it is still unformed. First we noticed Box-set binging, and the shorter length of a series on subscription television. We noticed downloaders impatiently grabbing television from foreign shores, fearful of having to avoid social media while their own nation’s networks dragged their feet. Recently we have seen simultaneous releases, as networks seek to render torrent sites obsolete, and yet the reality of time zones frustrates the ideal of simultaneous transmission. We are now seeing whole series premiering on streaming services in binge friendly blocks.

But none of this seems to be the thing. Our rough beast is part of the background, and when we glimpse it in box-set form it has clearly been butchered and packaged. We can tell it isn’t fully formed when all we can say to our friends is “you really should watch this,” and even if they have, you can’t really have a quick conversation about something that lasts for eight hours or more.

The direction we are heading is all about that conversation. Everyone knows that great television is a shared experience, but our shared experiences are different nowadays. Communication with people we actually care about, or people that share our interests, is instant, undemanding, and online. This is clearly a good thing—our connected conversations are culturally rewarding. Social Media has literally exploded. It is hard to believe we only started texting each other in earnest around 2000 AD, and less than ten years later, far from threatening literacy, it has turned everyone into rapacious readers and, more importantly, writers, bloggers, reviewers, podcasters, gif-makers, caption editors—the list grows daily.

Television executives, like all of us, were aware of the new landscape forming. They turned to their social-media savvy colleagues in marketing to help them make an impact in this new world, and a not so quiet revolution was begun. A revolution that is beginning to see Twitter trends replace ratings as the main indicator of success.

In a short series of articles, each focusing on a loose collection of television shows, I will try to document this second coming of television in an attempt to discern the shape of the rough beast that slouches toward our home-theatres to be born.

Emerging From the Static

At some point in the nineties, information theorists must have realized that the image of monkeys fumbling inexpertly with typewriters, in the infinitesimal chance that some Shakespeare might result, was a bit old fashioned, not to mention cruel. They decided to update their visual image of random chance, instead asking us to imagine a detuned television with the idea that if we watched for long enough we might see a whole program randomly appear. Obviously we would have to wait for an infinitely longer time than we would want to, and given that televisions now detect the random snow and show a blank screen instead, the whole image was out of date far faster than the monkeys. Besides, no one would detune a television—everyone knows this allows communication between malevolent poltergeists and small children.

The Sopranos

However, we didn’t have to wait for multiple universes to be born and die before something began to emerge from the static. The Sopranos wasn’t quite as unexpected as a banana stained Shakespeare folio, but it was quite a shock to this British viewer; it had an apparently random collision of elements emerging out of a static logo, which combined to make something new. I had never seen that HBO logo on anything else; in the UK the company wasn’t on our radar, except to a few people that had disparagingly mentioned the shock fest of Entourage, which was being shown very late at night, also on the deliberately edgy Channel 4. Once the word began to spread, the perceived wisdom was that The Sopranos was a subscription show, so HBO could do what it wanted. Transatlantic perceptions are often a little skewed.

To a British viewer the US made sharp and stylish television, but the shows were usually less edgy and certainly contained less violence or nudity. The earliest examples would be shows like The Sweeny, which back in the early seventies took the tarnished sheen of city crime dramas like Kojak and applied it in uncomfortable areas; such that you identified with Regan, a foul mouthed punch throwing cop, who displayed a little too much familiarity with the criminal world he was policing. Even the later The Professionals, which toned down some of these elements in a relatively unsuccessful attempt to reach an international audience, felt more edgy than most US comparisons. So I wasn’t shocked by The Sopranos, I was just surprised and delighted that it existed.

In one way The Sopranos was an old fashioned show; despite the reduced length of each season, it clearly wanted to reach the magical and elusive number of approximately eighty eight episodes that supported syndication, which mandated that it spin out the soap opera for at least four full length seasons. The financial rewards of syndication are such a tempting lure to television producers that many a series has suffered artificially extended runs, often resulting in twisting the initial premise of a show into an unrecognizable format. Audiences are even conditioned to value this longevity, to the point that some feel it is a risk to watch a new show in case it doesn’t get a second season, or even a complete run.

I am not reviewing The Sopranos here, but in my opinion the show suffered for this extended length; but I am British and not exposed to these demands. The Sweeny was an unmitigated success at 53 episodes and two motion pictures, but many people my age would rank the six episode run of the comedy Fawlty Towers much higher up their list of all-time great television.

The Sopranos caught my attention a couple of years later for an equally surprising phenomenon: the box-set. Box-sets were nothing new, but they were still something of a rarity on the shelves of my friends, at least as far as television was concerned. Some people had a Star Trek: The Next Generation collection, others had a few worthy costume dramas, and I owned a box set of The Prisoner which replaced my meticulously compiled VHS collection. The pattern was niche collections of favorite shows, with an emphasis on ownership. When my brother-in-law proudly announced that he was going to receive a box-set of The Sopranos for Christmas, I was surprised (and a little envious). This wasn’t a fan collecting his favorite show; he was planning on catching up with a show that he had just found on late night television and wanted to watch from the start! This was a radically new idea at the time, and the DVD charts that year suggested it wasn’t unusual.

Deadwood and Cost

When Deadwood arrived it seemed to be following the same formula as The Sopranos, and in some ways it seemed safer. In David Milch, they had a writer with a track record reaching all the way back to Hill Street Blues via NYPD Blue with a string of episode credits and awards. This was clearly another series looking to the long game of syndication, but despite its glowing reviews and significant awards it was a troubled production.

If you read interviews from the cast and crew you get a picture of a chaotic production, which challenged everyone to be on their toes and at their best at all times. Some look back and praise the exciting and invigorating experience, and some are notably less enthusiastic despite the default positivity of the industry. HBO was clearly nervous; the show was expensive to produce and looked unlikely to reach four season without breaking the bank (one episode famously took 21 days to finish). HBO had a reputation of not cancelling shows, and there were negotiations to try and wrap up the story in a shortened fourth season but they came to nothing.

Ratings are not the most important thing to a subscription channel. What matters to them is a more arcane formula driven by market research: which shows make subscribers sign up, which shows keep them subscribing, and which ones sell abroad. I wonder if DVD sales had been more of a factor at the time, whether they would have continued the series, but Deadwood was dying just before The Wire (which had started earlier) began to change the DVD market.

The Wire and the Box-Set

HBO had been in the home video market since the early eighties, mainly with co-production partners such as Thorn EMI and Cannon, but this side of the business was clearly in decline, partly due to poor decisions and partly because the rental market was declining. The DVD market was highly competitive and the successful companies tended to be the content owners.

The eighties and nineties had seen huge conglomerations of media companies, the largest of which was Time Warner’s procurement of HBO, as Time-Life had gained control of HBO back in the seventies. In this larger company Warner Home Video took precedence, easily out-competing its sister company because it was both a main distributer and favored by the content producing parts of the company. HBO Video would probably have withered on the vine but for the fact it was still able to draw on its own content. By the time The Wire was being packaged for the home market, things were very different.

Like The Sopranos many of the elements of The Wire existed before, but in the hands of a journalistic writer it began to innovate as it developed. The Wire dealt with a thematic examination of real world issues, and the dysfunctional nature of institutions coping with a world that is outpacing them. More relevant to our quest, the show hints at the return of anthology television, with each season taking a different focus and moving into various realms of society; the format became capable of switching its premise. Many shows have clear season arcs that shift elements of the series (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but when The Wire shifted its scope in the third season to include politics, it was changing the show on a more fundamental level, and it continued to do this for the remaining seasons. Such regenerations helped keep the show fresh and interesting while maintaining the style and overall feel of the show, protecting the show from the aforementioned twisting of premise, by building change into the format.

Perhaps even more obviously different in the UK was how people watched The Wire: it was a box-set phenomenon. In Britain The Wire was tucked away on the relatively minor channel FX, and when it was shown on the BBC it was aired at midnight. It was so obscure that hardly anyone watched it on television at all. The box-set or PVRs became the best options and the DVD player was the most accessible technology at the time. Of course, as a box-set you could watch it whenever you wanted, binge on whole runs, and (importantly) you could lend it to your friends. Box-sets of The Wire and The Killing (Danish version), which was also relatively lost in the schedules, became the most talked about television in the UK.

HBO Video, soon to become HBO Home Entertainment, slowly shifted its focus toward packaging its own content. The DVD market allowing non-subscribers to purchase the shows and acting as marketing for subscriptions.

BBC and Co-Production

It always pays to keep an eye on both sides of any cost equation, and HBO was also seeking ways to make high quality shows less expensive. One model was the tried and tested mini-series: it played to their heritage as a movie channel and they could get Hollywood names in the production and on screen. Band of Brothers was the stand out example, especially when measured in box-set sales and critical acclaim. This was a prestige production, designed to bring in subscribers and garner awards, with a budget to match. HBO spread the costs by partnering with the BBC in a deal that effectively meant that the BBC was pre-paying for the rights to show the mini-series and presumably have some say in the production. However, something must have gone awry as the BBC moved the show to the less high profile BBC2 only weeks before it was due to air—nominally to ensure an unbroken run, although the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, was quoted as saying “… it’s relatively niche and I’m running a mainstream channel.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t put off the BBC, as they signed with HBO again, to co-produce Rome, this time for more money and a much more significant share of the cost.

Exactly how the BBC measures success is a dark art: there are a number of stakeholders in the equation, and the popular conception is that viewers pay a license fee and in return expect value for money and good quality programming. As if that wasn’t intangible enough, the license fee goes to the government, who set the cost of the license and at times can be very vocal about value for money. A full explanation is mercifully outside the scope of this article and beyond the understanding of the average license fee payer, including me. Suffice to say, when the BBC spends millions of pounds on anything, there are significant factions in the British press and the political sphere who will delight in pointing out how wasteful and antiquated the whole system is and put their own dogmatic spin on the solution.

Whether Rome was a success in the UK is therefore complex, but the intangible value for money equation resulted in only two of the projected five seasons being made, and HBO clearly pointing to the BBC being responsible for the cancellation. There was also a notable delay in its airing in the UK, and these timing issues will be further explored in a future article.

An interesting footnote to the HBO/BBC collaboration was Extras, a British show with a lower budget, but with high profile guest stars attracting the attention of HBO. The show paid off at the Emmys, and given Ricky Gervais’ lower profile in the US at that time, presumably had the majority of the TV audience wondering who this strange, grinning man was, collecting the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series” award.

Co-production remains a part of the HBO model, with the companion to Band of Brothers, The Pacific, being produced by five production companies around the world. Notably Sky Movies, a subscription satellite channel, replaced the BBC as the British contingent.

BOX Set as TV Package

Many other great programs came out of HBO, and many of them led directly to DVD Sales. The easily digestible shorter series combined with the quality and serious focus proved a great success. However, my focus is not so much the shows themselves as the direction that the company is going.

The next innovation in subscription television came with the advent of “all you can eat” content, reflecting how the music industry is moving toward streaming content. Television companies like Netflix and Hulu have claimed this ground at present, but claiming ground and keeping it are very different things, and the established players are beginning to take. We are still in the early days of this battle, but the commonly heard claim that viewers are abandoning their cable or satellite subscriptions is provoking a response. Major players like Amazon are seeking to compete directly, while cable and satellite providers are leveraging their contacts and influence to tie up popular content.

This whole phenomenon is too nebulous to get a clear idea of the future, despite the rhetoric, but what is emerging is the box-set as premium content, alongside the traditional blockbuster movies, with HBO and their imitators’ output over the last few years featuring prominently. On both sides of the Atlantic, Fox/Sky are featuring Box-Sets in their user interfaces as a way of selling subscriptions to their own premium channels and streaming services. This is providing an alternative to syndication, or at least a place where shows can live while they accrue the necessary number of episodes. Netflix has even taken the step of releasing whole shows, all at once, like the US remake of House of Cards. The idea that shows may arrive en mass is an intriguing one, and challenges the whole notion of scheduling.

Tentative Conclusions

We might be tempted to declare that the future of television will be packaged as a box-set and delivered electronically. Clearly, television companies are using box-sets as effective marketing, and the audience enjoys watching television at their own pace. The HBO model has produced new revenue streams as television platforms buy series as blocks of content. The wider market’s enthusiasm for these marketable blocks of content is also providing co-production options as overseas companies and streaming platforms seek to provide the content exclusively in order to attract subscriptions.

However, we need to take into account the other ways that television is consumed, and the less passive relationships many shows have with their audience. In my next article I will look at how internet marketing has merged with social media to herald something new and, until recently, unrelated to HBO’s market-led interaction with their audience.

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Jamie is a computer graduate who decided programming was too impersonal and instead has spent his working life talking to people. He has worked as a trainer in telecommunications and as an environment specialist in retail. His habit of grumbling at television programs and comics, in the vain hope that they will listen, hasn't been working. Instead he has taken up writing about them. When he isn't watching Doctor Who or reading X-Men comics, he can be found morris dancing badly, cycling less often than he should, and playing story-games. Moving from London to a quiet market town has made the first two easier than the third.

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