Tim Harford, the self-proclaimed “Undercover Economist,” wrote an interesting column the other day at Financial Times about how television broadcasting has changed through technology. Harford’s post, partly inspired from a talk given by University of Toronto economics professor Joshua Gans, claims that television programming has evolved primarily because of two technologies developed over the last thirty years to forty years, namely time-shifting devices (VCRs, DVRs, streaming) and subscription channels. Gans, who titled his book Information Wants to be Shared(based on the techno-activist slogan “information wants to be free” once used to criticize intellectual property rights), conjectures that certain types of programming are favored by this evolution:
- For ad-based revenue, programs whose social aspects have a real-time impact are favored, such as news programs, sporting events and “reality” shows like Survivor and Britain’s Got Talent (or any of the various national variants)
- For subscription-based revenue, “higher quality dramas” will prevail, such as Game of Thrones,Downton Abbey and Lost.
Harford expands on Gans’ ideas about the latter item a bit:
Ponder the resurgence of complex, almost Dickensian story arcs in the unexpected form of the television series. From The Sopranos to Lost, 24 to Breaking Bad, over the past decade or so, the extended, sophisticated narrative has come to a TV near you. Previously only soap operas would attempt such a sprawling form, and then only on the understanding that anyone could switch on at any time and grasp what was happening. The idea of putting on a series that becomes baffling to occasional viewers was regarded as commercial suicide.
Time-shifting, Harford and Gans argue, not only lets people watch television when they want to, but it also lets them become invested in a more involved story. Thus, the success of shows like LOST and others is attributable not so much to the storytelling, which attracted fans, as to the technology, which gave fans an opportunity to become attracted at their own pace.
It’s a compelling argument on the surface, but I can’t help but wonder how accurate it is. Gans seems to talk about complex “higher quality dramas” as if they are something new, whereas Harford calls “complex, almost Dickensian story arcs” a “resurgence” of the last ten years or so. I’m not convinced this is the case. In fact, there are some clear examples of complex dramas with multiple-episode, perhaps even season- or series-long, arcs going back consistently to at least the 1960s:
- 1960s: The Prisoner (UK) and The Fugitive (US) — even The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show had multi-episode arcs
- 1970s: Battlestar Galactica (original) and Dallas (continuing into the 1980s)
- 1980s: V and various “prime time soaps”
- 1990s: Twin Peaks, X-Files, Babylon 5 and even Beverly Hills, 90210
- 2000s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Lost and so on…
This is just a sampling, but I think it shows that there has been a somewhat consistent flow of complex drama throughout the last half century at least, including before time-shifting devices were in common use.
To be fair, Harford and Gans don’t argue that complex dramas didn’t exist, only that time-shifting and subscription-based services have expanded them. This is undoubtedly true in absolute numbers. However, subscription-based services have also increased the availability of nearly all types of programming. You’re not likely to find shows with in-depth story arcs on the Lifetime network, but my mom still records Lifetime movies on her DVR. If there is any evidence that time-shifting and subscription services favor more complex stories rather than simply having more of every type of story, they don’t really show it.
And that’s also true of shows we supposedly demand to watch live, like sporting events, news and other programs. My parents record the news every night and just watch the segments they want. On Saturday we’ll be watching the Syracuse vs. Georgetown basketball game when we return from my daughter’s all-county chorus concert, after the game is over. I suspect we’re not the only ones who use DVRs in such ways.
Perhaps more notable than what Gans thinks will survive is what he thinks will fail:
What will fall increasingly by the wayside will be sit-coms, self-contained drama (like Doctor Who) and documentaries. In other words, the social component will drive out the intrinsic entertainment component in the programming offered via traditional television models.
This seems profoundly wrong to me, and not just because of the probable mischaracterization of Doctor Who as a “self-contained drama.” In particular, it seems wrong because it fails to acknowledge what I think is a more likely, and more obvious, trend over the last twenty years or so to blend comedy with longer, more complex story arcs. I don’t mean simply dramedies, which may have both comedic and dramatic elements in a single episode, but shows like How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) and Communitywhich have a bit higher concept, and thus arc, than the average sit-com while retaining the episodic feel. This isn’t a new phenomenon either, but goes back to shows like Seinfeld and Cheers, both of which had seasonal story arcs, although not series-long arcs. Likewise, procedurals like NCIS andGrimm will continue to keep their 42-minute structures intact while spicing up intrigue with longer-arcs that hint at both mystery and mythology.
In fact, I expect this to happen precisely because of the notion Gans implies with the title of his book. Information may want to be shared, but that sharing also means mixing and recombining into something new. If anything goes away, it’s likely to be the very soap operas Harford claimed used to attempt “sprawling forms.” And we can only thank whatever deity watches over network television for that small mercy.