Saturday, September 5, 2015


Despite new viewing habits, television content still sticks to old formats

Wet Hot American summer was released in one eight-episode go, the whole series immediately available to binge on. Netflix releases all their original content this way, starting with House of Cards in 2013. Un-Real, though aired on Lifetime, released the show's first four episodes onilne along with the on-air season premiere. 
I watched the first four episodes of Wet Hot in one shot, stopping only to find and view the original film. I am a TV binge-r, and habitually watch shows straight. I remember when my sister and I first binged on an entire season of The OC. We were sharing a room and even if she hadn't seen much of the show prior she started watching when I put the DVDs in. At the end of every episode we couldn't stop the machine from automatically playing the next one. We had started in the afternoon, stopped only to eat dinner and then continued to watch straight until 4 am the next morning. When we woke up we just resumed watching until we were flat out of episodes.

Straight shot viewing seems to be part of the engagement model. It is tough to watch one episode at a time, and unless I am deathly afraid to be spoiled (e.g. Game of Thonres), I prefer to hoard episodes. What is the reason behind this behavior? It could be loneliness or feeling like you just need to finish a show that you've already invested in.

Given this mode of viewing that studios feed by releasing entire seasons at once, it makes me wonder if episode specs will be maintained as viewer habits shift. Wet Hot still shows opening and closing credits, and the episodes fit the half-hour format. At 28 minutes per episode, they don't need to leave time for ads but still fit within that standard timeslot. House of Cards fits within the hour-long time slot. These are the two typical episode lengths aligned with how programming is planned and scheduled. However when people are watching television online and often practically as a mini-series, will episode lengths eventually change beyond these uniform durations? To mini-clip shorts or even feature length episodes?

Entertainment formats are platform-driven. Except for cable shows, most television programs run for 22 or 44 minutes, leaving time for ads, as standard lengths that can be programmed into a pre-determined time slots. To signify the start of an episode there is often a summary of relevant events in previous episodes ("Previously on..."), which you might have forgotten if you're watching on a weekly basis. Many shows also have opening and closing credits that we associate with the start and end - which have to be in the show material itself becuase there is no external webpage that could include that information.

This reminds me of the intermissions that were once standard in movies. I remember seeing this when we were kids watching classic films on laser disc. As someone who usually has to leave the theater to go to the bathroom (thanks, RunPee), I wouldn't mind if more movies had an offical break. But on the other hand, why cut the action and lose momentum? It turns out that they used to need this time to change reels. "In cinema’s early days, intermissions were necessary to allow projectionists to change out film reels. When the French silent film The Loves of Queen Elizabeth opened in New York in 1912, it consisted of four whole reels and an individual intermission accompanied each." (The Outtake) Intermissions were a necessary, platform-driven spec.

I suppose that when the technology evolved there was suddenly no need to stop a film to change the reel, and this is one platform spec that has been changed.

Movies have always had a much freer rein on length and duration. To qualify as a film a material must be at least ninety minutes long, but they can go to LOTR lengths of three hours and counting. Will television programming eventually evolve this way as well?

While there are online-only content networks like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, most television programming is still tied to linear and ad-driven programming schedules. We still have "late night" TV, shows are still scheduled during a supposed "prime" time, morning programming is largely news-led and "daytime TV" consists of soap opears. Episode lengths are determined by the number of ads that will be run. It is still one timeline being mapped out by networks, with content and cost per hour, per minute, per second. In advertising time determines cost, a 15s material costs much less than a 30s vs. a 60s or, the ultimate TV luxury, the 90-second commercial.

As someone who views shows often by the season, hasn't seen a TV ad on TV in years, never watches the morning news and views late night shows at any hour of the day, I wonder what changes lie ahead for this particular platform. As we move online where units of time become less as we select our own non-time lines, I wonder what innovations we will see in entertainment formatting.


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