10/21: On-Demand TV: What’s the Story?

A recent Marist poll suggests our TV viewing habits are undergoing massive changes. 16% of U.S. residents are watching most TV shows using their DVRs, while another 9% are watching most shows on the Web. If demographics are any indication, it won’t be long before these numbers climb even higher: only 56% of people under 45 watch most TV shows in real time compared with 77% of their elders. The implications are straightforward: many of us are enjoying the flexibility of the digital age, which doesn’t require us to be in our living rooms on a certain day at a certain time to catch our favorite programs.

goldman-caricature-430A more intriguing question might have to do with what we’re watching rather than how we’re watching. Our evolving habits could alter (and may have already altered) the structure and content of television shows.

It’s not hard to imagine possible changes in structure. Freed from strict programming schedules, shows needn’t be edited into to half-hour and hour-long blocks that alternate between content and ads. Distributors can also be more creative with ad placement. Hulu.com, which offers TV shows in full, sometimes allows users to choose to view a long advertisement before their show starts instead of experiencing the traditional interruptions. Many shows resort to narrative devices that pump up suspense prior to commercials — what better way to make viewers sit through the beer and insurance ads? — and on-demand formats may give writers the confidence to ditch these tired conventions.

On-demand technology also allows us to start at the beginning of each series. Traditional TV shows, eager to pick up viewers in the first season, the third season, or whatever season, usually aren’t structured so that knowledge of past episodes are crucial to understanding the show. Instead, mainstream programs are designed to deliver their thrills or laughs in a short period of time, followed by satisfying closure.  Conflict is established in the first minute and resolved prior to the end of the half-hour or hour. Law & Order has mastered this form, hooking us before the credits with a crime scene, often drenched in blood, and then rewarding us one hour later by bringing the depraved perp to justice.  House thrives on the same trick, although the mystery is medical rather than criminal (the amount of blood being roughly the same). In both shows, the characters have histories, but knowing their back stories aren’t essential to following the action.

I’m sure there will always be a place for such tactics, but I also hope the new technology could spur writers to be more inventive when organizing plots. Individual episodes should still be self-contained, but they can also expand the less obvious narrative threads planted in earlier shows, as well as continue thematic and visual motifs. One of the common compliments lavished on shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos was that they told stories with novelistic complexity; each episode functioned as a book chapter, not only advancing another increment of plot, but also contributing, in a less linear way, to the narrative whole that stretched from the first episode to the last, many seasons later.

This could all be wishful thinking; the money-making requirements of on-demand content could shape our new media stories in ways that aren’t especially respectful of narrative integrity. I’ve encountered plenty of three-minute comedy and sports highlight clips that start off with pre-roll ads, boasting a content-to-commercial ratio that traditional TV advertisers could only dream of. But, here’s hoping that advances in technology will promote advances in TV shows.

One final thought — to the 7% of U.S. residents who don’t watch TV at all, I say … wow. I’m not sure what you’re doing with your free time, but I have a feeling it’s more productive than watching TV, no matter what format.