The Future Of Television

Photo courtesy of ABC.

Photo courtesy of ABC.

We all know that televisions of the future will be made out of photovoltaic glass and mounted on the walls (which will also be made of photovoltaic glass) of our perfect utopian homes. Some would question why not just have the walls themselves be the televisions if they are made of the same material as the televisions, but come on, televisions made out of walls? That’s ridiculous. One thing is for sure though; in the future, families will gather on their photovoltaic glass couches to bond over a nice evening of quality programming, just as they have done for decades. Except for the photovoltaic glass part. That’s new. Have you heard about photovoltaic glass though? Pretty exciting stuff.

But the important question, the one about to be addressed, is what will this quality programming be?

Here at the offices of NU Channel 1, we thought it’d be fun to get several of our regular writers together to have a discussion about what they each want to see in the coming years as television evolves and expands. This is that discussion…

Sarah Turner: Netflix and other innovate internet video providers are taking large steps forward, but I want them to go further and incorporate what Youtube pioneers have already done. Netflix gave Beau Willimon, a much more flexible time frame in which to create House of Cards because they were distributing them all at once instead of weekly. I would like for writers to in turn use more interesting locations because they can fully make use of them instead of being restricted to standing sets because using other sets just once a week is not cost effective.

With all this extra time, I want internet T.V. showrunners to look to shortform Youtube webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that use the internet to great effect. LBD created twitters, tumblers, trackt.tv, thisismyjam accounts, and other modes of internet expression for the characters as if their lives were occurring outside of the webseries. Weeks before stories broke on the webseries, the characters were expressing their feelings on the aforementioned websites for the dedicated fan. Such interactive content has been mainly done so far by fans, but if the actual creators of show were involved then it could bring the viewing experience to the next level.

Chris Romero: While it is true that new social media has been utilized well to capture audiences, unfortunately this new trend generally only appeals to a young demographic. The American television industry (aside from CBS unintentionally) already gives little priority to older audiences since advertisers don’t believe seniors have any disposable income to spend. I fear that if television programs shift from enhancing their shows with social media toward dependence on it, more traditional television viewers will be alienated and forgotten even more than they already are today. That being said, I think that there are many aspects of web television that would improve the current state of network television if implemented.

Netflix programs such as House of Cards and Arrested Development Season Four produce fewer episodes than the standard 22 episode season run. Instead, they release about 13-15 episodes, a model already followed by many scripted cable and British programs. Money no doubt plays a role, but I believe the result of fewer episodes is a higher quality of episode since more time and care can be put into each installment. I doubt network television will want to change their traditional 22-episode fall-to-spring schedule anytime soon, but perhaps if we saw more “midseason” type shows on network television that run half the time of a normal show, we could see better quality programs that match the level of what we are seeing on cable and the internet today.

Edward Spelman: I feel like the heavy integration of social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes, it could allow writers to take their world and characters beyond the show in a way that’s never been done before. But I feel that that kind of activity has some potential downsides.  For one thing, you’re excluding a certain percentage of the population. You’re taking the show and telling the audience it has to have a certain lifestyle, certain knowledge, and make an extended effort to fully experience it. Why exclude part of your audience that way? But more than that, I think the relationship between story and audience is somewhat violated when you take the characters outside the episode. For me at least, part of the fun of any story is that you know you’re just seeing a small chunk of these people’s lives, and you get to fill in the blanks of who they are and what they’re like and their lives are like when you don’t see them. It gives the audience an agency, it lets them wonder, it lets them think. I think you would lose some of that if you’re seeing characters speak and interact online outside of the actual story.

I agree that shows should really try and change the way they’re structured. The 10-13 episode season allows for more economy of writing, more focus, and more detailed attention and thought put into each episode, both on the writing side and on the production side. Shows also should start rethinking the way they write their stories. Too many shows reach a certain point at which they overstay their welcome and start going downhill. The story wanders, the originality and freshness fades, and the ending disappoints. I honestly think that shows should stop approaching themselves as infinite. You should have a specific place you want the story to get to and when you get to it, you end. If that’s after two seasons, so be it. Three seasons, four seasons. So be it. There’s no point pushing out to six and seven and beyond just because you can. I think it’s just such standard practice to keep whatever show going as long as possible, but I think that trend needs to change. British television, for instance, often only has two to three seasons of a show before they end. So it doesn’t get stale or veer off track.

I’d also like to see more experimentation in television. There’s art cinema, but there isn’t really art T.V. A show like Louie is a perfect example of something that completely changes the rules and gives us something completely different than anything else on T.V. And it’s acclaimed. This past decade, television improved partially because writers starting experimenting with character, giving us characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano who totally broke the rules of what a T.V. protagonist is supposed to be. I think the next step is for shows to start breaking the rules of what T.V. structure is supposed to be.

Rachel Poletick: Social media, in my opinion, doesn’t so much prove exclusionary as it encourages fans to participate with content in a personal way. The LBD example that Sarah used was a perfect choice – the show made audiences see the characters in a space beyond the show. It didn’t eliminate freedom of imagination, but rather let the viewer believe that when the cameras weren’t rolling, the characters were still living. Of course it’s a choice whether or not we, as watchers, choose to participate. Certainly creators should not sacrifice content on the actual programming in lieu of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or other interactions. But using those platforms can’t hurt, only help.

I agree that shorter runs can be effective in providing the time to create good programming, but there is a problem with audience attention span that can’t be overlooked. Recently I saw one of my favorite recent TV shows, Bunheads, face the ax from its network (ABC Family) after the show received mediocre Nielsen numbers. I attribute that failure mainly to the decision of the channel to air ten episodes of the show, followed by a temporary break and a return several months later. The casual viewer won’t necessarily maintain allegiance to a show when it is not consistent. There’s so much television and only so much concern focused on each individual show. In this case, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. In general, it makes the audience forget.

One thing I do think needs to be addressed is an openness to alternative genres in television. A common occurrence, especially among the major networks, is to find a template for a series and then replay it in as many incarnations as possible. Shows like Parks and Recreation, plus the recently-ended The Office, are positive examples of how templates can work (in this case office mockumentaries), but then I’m reminded of all the single-word-titled sensational drama series like Revenge, Mistresses, and Scandal. These shows certainly have their place, but they overshadow some of the more unique and inimitable series like FX’s Wilfred, HBO’s Family Tree, or even ABC’s Once Upon a Time which are critical darlings and have the potential to become audience favorites without sticking to the ordinary. There’s so much room for creativity on television, online shows like LBD are one place to look, but even other TV shows can provide some insight into what it is the general television lineup is missing.

Sarah Turner: When Arrested Development returned on Netflix for its 4th season, the lack of traditional television structure ultimately hurt the product because a lot of the longer episodes were unfocused leading to an odd Mementoish AD circlejerk instead of the quality storytelling I expected. If time limits are abolished, TV writers will adjust, but I could see a future where there isn’t television as we know it but just short movies. Maybe the format doesn’t matter as long as the material is well written and executed, but there is a distinct separation between television and movies that Rachel touched on.

Each movie can be marketed individually, but consistency is important in television because that’s how you know who to advertise to and on an individual level, what brings people back every week. While Louie’s uniqueness can be refreshing, I don’t think the average person would tune back into a show where they can’t figure out what the tone or format is from one episode to the next. Double the confusion with time length and scheduling inconsistency. Television has to contend with consistent funding whereas a one off art house movie doesn’t.

Chris Romero: I agree that consistency in television is important both from a marketing and a creative standpoint. Personally, the main reason I prefer television over movies is that the structure allows writers to introduce, develop, and expand on a consistent story in a much longer timeframe than a film does. I like that each week I know what to expect from a show. If I want to see how an elite British family adapts to a changing world, I’ll tune into Downton Abbey . If I want to see how a fraud psychic uses hyper-observance skills to solve a mystery, I’ll watch Psych. Experimental television is perfectly fine, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

And I agree that lack of traditional television structure ultimately hurt the fourth season of Arrested Development. With the 30+ minute run-times, there were scenes that clearly would have and should have been cut had it instead aired on network television. I think Netflix shows and webseries alike need to do a better job at setting a standard runtime with each episode as if it were required. The result will be a better product. There’s a reason not everything makes the final cut and movies (and shows) have so many deleted scenes.

Edward Spelman: I agree that you shouldn’t weaken your episode with unnecessary scenes and reach a longer time limit just because you can. Concision is key. Nonetheless, though I haven’t seen the 4th season of Arrested Development, I don’t see why the 30-minute episode has to have been the issue. Plenty of comedies, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, work wonderfully in that time frame.

I also think that the idea of a classical television structure with the expansive story that expands and lives throughout the whole season or multiple seasons does not at all have to be at odds with the short movie structure that Sarah mentioned. I don’t think the television structure of having the season’s arcs play out over all the episodes should be changed. Each episode should be looked at as a short movie in itself so that it could almost stand alone as its own piece of art, while at the same time being directly connected to all the other episodes, instead of having every episode rely so much on the others. Shows like The Sopranos have managed to do this. And I’m not saying that all shows should start playing around with structure- but why not some? I feel like in television the way it is, you always know when the beats are coming. Obviously you need to stick to basic structure, otherwise it’ll be a mess, but it can’t hurt for some writers (and directors and cinematographers for that matter) to try to play around a bit. How many more decades will people want to keep seeing the same things rehashed?

Rachel Poletick: At the core of our beliefs, as I see it, is an agreement that television can benefit from greater creativity. There’s this constant battle on the networks between commercial exploits and creative liberty. Because we pay for our entertainment, we have allowed the industry to become Ebenezer Scrooge, holding tight to his gold coins and yelling “bah, humbug” to all concerns that don’t coincide with his capitalistic venture. What we want, however, is T.V. that considers audience devotion the true assessment of its performance. If we keep coming back, if we engage not only as television viewers but as followers of a series in its many alternative forms, that is an honest measure of quality. And quality is what’s important.

This may not be an economic model, and that is likely why television may never enter onto a path that is conducive to enhancing the user experience. With that said, there are and will continue to be shows that are willing to experiment, to break the mold. And if that’s what we want, then what we really need to do is keep watching and keep engaging. A static viewer may increase viewership numbers, but as people who are passionate about television, we can drive a show forward with passion, excitement and activity – bringing our shows to life by sharing and participating with them in any way we can.

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