19 April 2011

The Rise of Television Due To Its Demise

I don't watch much broadcast television or cable television.  Indeed, I haven't since I was in high school and for a little while after I graduated from law school and before I had a sustained full time job working for a law firm, with a small handful of exceptions.  Most television is and always was crap.

But, as broadcast TV has mostly gone down market looking for the lowest common denominator, there has also been a notable strata of really quality TV series on non-free TV stations like Showtime and HBO, and to a lesser extent on other stations.  The multiplicity of channels has made it more attractive to dominate the niche of intelligent (and often affluent) TV watchers in the context of an advertising environment where no one channel commands much of the total market share, rather trying to win high ratings by maximizing the number of demographics to which a show will appeal at the cost of dumbing it down.

The true revolution in TV, however, has come with the availablility of whole series of TV programs on DVD, Tivo, or via live streaming from netflix.  This is, for TV, what the transition from serial magazine publishing a la Dickens, to novel publishing was when it happened a hundred and fifty years ago or so.  It is now possible to sit down and watch a ten hours season of a television series the same way that you can sit down and read a novel for ten hours -- uninterrupted by commercials, when you want to, in sequential order, for as long as it retains your interest.  The knowledge that this is possible also makes it less important for television episodes to have stand alone plots - longer story arcs are now feasible since the lion's share of the audience will no longer be seeing the episodes as re-runs in more or less random order.

There had been attempts to achieve this effect with mini-series, but the production values were still low due to low budgets,  the total duration, while longer than a movie wasn't that long, and they still needed to appeal to broad audiences with undiscriminating fare.

Movies, which tend to hover at an hour and forty-five minutes, plus or minus about twenty minutes, almost aways had higher production values than television for the entire period during the 20th century during which they co-existed and were the only mass produced theater form that could count on keeping the bulk of its audience for the entire work.  But, the 21st century has brought us movie quality productions in a television format that are seven or more times as long as a movie and far more involved.  An entire TV series will have a novel length script.  A movie has a script a bit longer than a typical short story, but shorter than a typical novella.

As blogger Amber Taylor, writing in the Atlantic, accurately describes the current state of affairs:  "television, not motion pictures, is now where truly sweeping, complex stories are being told."

Movies and television still aren't plays and novels, whose authors we revere.  In both of these visual media, the director and producers are kings and the script writer, or often, a whole team of scriptwriters turning out episodes faster than any one writer can churn them out, are often secondary players, whose initial drafts are mere suggestions to be freely modified and ad libbed around in the course of filming.  But, we do finally seem to be giving quality script writing a little more respect.

The revolution isn't really in the production values; it is in the story telling.  Japanese anime and manga have far lower production values than American comic books and animated features.  But, American comic books tend to have never ending rambling story lines with a narrow scope of issues that they address by comparison to the superior story telling and broad reach of their Asian counterparts.  Latin and Asian telenovellas, despite low production costs, have carefully crafted, thoughtful season length story lines that earn them their name, rather than the multi-decade abominations that are American soap operas, or the plotless meanderings that are American sitcoms and run of the mill dramas. 

Yet, somewhere along the line, mostly in the last decade or two, somebody in New York and Hollywood decided that a minority of well paying prime time viewers deserved to be told stories with some real wit and coherence.  Somebody finally figured out that it makes no sense to spend multi-millions on A list actors and special effects and scenery and costumes, if all they are going to do is act out mediocre scripts in performances filmed with mediocre cinematography.

After a generation in which American writers were convinced that good writing was about everything but plot (a sentiment widely shared by all of my high school and college english teachers), plot has regained its rightful place as the foundational skeleton upon which everything else must be built, and it is again legitimate to discuss the issues posed by the story itself, as opposed to the metastory of its authorship and technique.

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