Thursday, May 23, 2013

Question for the Week of May 20-26: The Online TV Run

What about the ability to watch TV quickly in this online age? Do you watch TV series straight through, or take your time?
A fine question, and a fitting one - Netflix's plan for their original content (e.g., House of Cards) is to make the entire season available at once, and my roommate is an Arrested Development fan who is going to burn through all the new eps this weekend. However, these days, you didn't have to spend 60 minutes in front of the tube for seven years to catch 45 minutes of Lost every week. I've tried both styles, and I'm sure these differing options must have an impact on the experience.

On the one hand, a great deal of anticipation gets to build up through the old viewing model. Show writers can build great suspense for the audience right before the act breaks, as well as tension for the next installment at that episode's end. This sort of excitement is powerful and is part of what gets people talking and thinking about their favorite shows.

At the same time, some people are so curious, lack patience, or need downtime, that they would rather not wait at all. Some don't have VCRs or DVRs, and internet piracy (and overprotective industry practices) has pushed a lot of networks to stop airing re-runs. Others viewers simply have limited time and access to watch these long-form stories play out.

One peculiar thing about this, to me, is what these opportunities do to people as fans of a show. If you watch a show most every week for seven seasons, you really become attached to it. The difference in the investment of time is vast when you consider not only the advertisements we sit through, but the wait between individual episodes, as well as between the start of a season and its end (and the start of the next season).

If, however, you watch the first season of 24 in six big chunks, you don't get 24 hour-long experiences over 22 or 23 weeks. You end up spending 4 blocks of 45 minutes each - 3 hours a piece, 6 times over whatever period you please at your own leisure. For some, they can do that comfortably while working out, on lazy weekends, or during their after-work cool-down periods.

And it's very funny/odd to me that this different style of watching probably has some impact on the audience's standards and expectations. If you wait 23 or 24 weeks, never mind programming breaks for sports and news events, for a story to be told, then you damn well want that story to be told as well as possible. A flubbed season ending or a badly-handled arc can be incredibly disappointing, and make you question whether you should stop following a series. If I had known how Lost would handle its last 40 or so episodes, I definitely would've quit after the first season...

By contrast, then, the ability to breeze through a show at will must make the disappointments a bit weaker. I've already described the time difference above, but - again, even excluding the times you hear "24 will be back in three weeks, only on Fox" - the lack of ads makes watching one year of 24 shorter by six whole hours. It's going to be hard to convince me that on-demand-style viewing doesn't affect what a viewer is willing to put up with; you must be less disappointed if so much less is required of you.

And in this increasingly-polarized day and age, I have to acknowledge that watching following a TV program live becomes more and more difficult with every year. It goes beyond content protection, like the diminished broadcast of reruns, or CBS' tendency to offer, then pull, its biggest hits from streaming and cable on-demand channels (no joke - even from its own site). A real-time investment in a series risks that writers' strike, that can insta-kill every program's season, or sudden-and-insane scheduling choices that hamstring a show's popularity.

Watching things from a distance, of course, lessens the disappointment of such unfortunate eventualities. And though you might be spared the frustration of day/time changes and unexpected multi-week breaks ("Now that we've pulled off some major twist, X will leave you hanging and return in 3 weeks..."), I think you should at least realize that this more detached viewing style necessarily lessens the impact of well-played storylines, the tension of being forced to wait for more.

I'm sure some series are so fine - or you see them under such perfect circumstances - that you can build those things among fans, but there's nothing quite like being in the chase. Everyone who is a front-runner - whether it's playing in a sports game instead of attending it, or being the person who goes to that game instead of watching it in a bar - experiences a thrill at the same thing. The difference is that the closer you get to the action, the greater the pleasure you get from it.

And, since I've been on every side of this equation: this scale of rewards is partly because things happen sooner for those most closely involved; the major part of it, though, is that the energy you invest influences the energy that you feel returned to you. I suppose that the interwebs have also changed the game by providing real-time fans with podcasts and online Q&A sessions, while similarly giving the view-at-will and post-cancellation audience forums to discuss whatever they feel collective passion towards.

I've practiced each method of TV viewing - the hardcore run through a season in one sitting, the steady at-will experience in big chunks, renting a season one DVD at a time, and the weekly installment plan. I appreciate the first two as options, even though my occasional streak of traditionalism sets the latter two as defaults. I simply don't have enough time to watch a lot of TV, so I'm more selective about what I see. However, if I'm impressed enough by a show, I'll give it as much of my time as it requires, and I won't complain about having to wait...

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