How Has Video Streaming Affected Television Content
The boom of streaming TV, both for both live and on-demand television viewing, has brought with it a particular set of challenges and unexpected surprises. Viewers can now enjoy their favorite shows and movies when they want, how they want, where they want, and on whatever screen size they want. We’re suffering from “too many choices syndrome.” We all know the big streaming players – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video. And of course, the spinoffs of the cablers and broadcasters – CBS Access, HBO Go, and so on.
To date, streaming has only affected the way content was viewed, rather than influence the content itself. In broad terms, traditional broadcasters typically prefer the long-term, five to ten season series model with a plethora of loyal watchers. Streamers typically prefer shorter relationships as they continually onboard new TV shows. They are even starting to “de-archive” some shows.
The new way of watching TV is influencing creative choices. This means that screenwriters and content creators alike should consider modifying some practical choices, but not their overall creative vision.
The Form Defines The Content
Showrunner Veena Sud (Seven Seconds, The Killing) claimed, “The form sometimes defines the content.” Sud cut her TV writing teeth in broadcast television, moved to cable and streaming, and now has shows set up at Quibi. Consider the traditional one-hour TV show on broadcast television. There are three to six acts bookended by a teaser or recap and an act out. Audiences needed to wait an entire week to watch the next episode, so story information (especially in serialized TV shows) needed to be repeated so they could keep up.
Then there were the commercial (read: bathroom) breaks that artificially interrupted the viewing experience. This was partially offset by shoehorning a cliffhanger before the break. This hasn’t been entirely replaced by the streamers. Streaming subscribers can opt for an ad or more expensive ad-free model to watch their shows. Writers need to bear this in mind.
The new television landscape also calls for more shorter content to allow audiences to view more material.
Although some streamers are experimenting with the weekly episode model to avoid audience overload, the general streaming model is largely a binge-watching one (defined as three or more consecutive episodes according to the Hulu sages.) Binge-watching allows for a more continuous and novelistic approach to storytelling.
The streamers are also becoming laxer with their timing requirements. A one-hour broadcast network TV show had to be forty-five minutes of content time (give or take a few minutes to show more advertisements) and a half-hour sitcom hovered around the twenty-six-minute mark (and falling). The timings were mandated by the networks rather than the natural flow of a TV show.
This has allowed TV writers to become more liberated, freed from the oppressive shackles of act outs and timing cutoffs. Viva La Télévision. A half-hour show on Netflix can run anywhere from twenty-three to thirty-three minutes (subject to change) and a one-hour TV show can run from forty-five to up to ninety minutes. “It makes it easier to expand the storytelling,” said Veena Sud. Rather than giving producers an episode budget, they are now given a season budget so they can apportion it accordingly.
The broadcast TV model isn’t looking for major inter-seasonal character arcs due to syndication. A buyer might only buy one season of a TV series, so it needed to be closed-ended storytelling. This was exacerbated by half-hour comedies and other non-serialized TV series because those episodes needed to be shown out of order. In some instances, there was a mix of old and new episodes (particularly for long-running series like The Big Bang Theory), so viewers may not even be watching episodes from the same season. Basically, every episode needed to stand on its own.
Video streaming remedies this to a certain extent. According to Marta Kauffmann (Grace and Frankie, Friends), “They want big character and story arcs. Not every story needs to fit into an episode and can spread out over the course of an entire season.” However, there are drawbacks pitting the depth and longevity of a TV series against each other. “It’s really hard to get a sense of your characters’ futures when you don’t have a sense of where your future is going to lead,” she added.
The Arrival Of Quibi
Quibi (a contraction of Quick Bites, not an inter-dimensional teleport vehicle) has disrupted the viewing landscape once again. The brainchild of Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided short form was the way to go to address our dropping attention spans. “Short” as in breaking up a longer form film or TV show into five to ten-minute chunks rather than a short film. Think of Quibi like reading a bedtime story to your child over the course of a wee,k a few pages at a time. “Quibi is a hybrid between 3 act film structure and episodic TV,” said Marta Kauffmann.
Quibi stories drop daily so you may watch a TV show over the course of one to two weeks. You get weekends off. If we recall filmmaking in its infancy, films were screened in eight to ten-minute reels. There would be an intermission as the projectionist changed over the reels, so this style of viewing is not entirely new to us. So how does this throwback affect how we tell stories?
“The episodes need to stand on their own because they drop so quickly. The act outs need to be fast and novel. The space between each episode is shorter than traditional television, so the audience constructs a full episode in their minds in chunks,” said Kauffmann; think of a detective collecting clues to put together a case.
The fact that Quibi has more limited real estate compared to the streaming platforms necessitates a tighter and leaner method of storytelling. Veena Sud said, “On Quibi you have two hours to fill versus thirteen hours on Netflix [referring to The Killing]. By necessity, thirteen hours required multiple arcs for the ensemble cast for The Killing, while on Quibi, I only focused on one character hitting consecutive obstacles.”
It’s important for screenwriters to develop a project with a platform in mind. You can expand or contract the stories depending on where the show lands. Writers and content creators should make themselves aware of each service’s brand and commissioning slate remit. Netflix currently has the broadest range of content. Quibi is millennial and youth-centric.
Quibi also streams on a both a horizontal and vertical frame on your smartphone. “Vertical frame format necessitates a new form of storytelling. How do we rethink writing a conversation? How do you stack a conversation? Instead of thinking of dialogue in terms of east-west, think of it as north-south. How does this compare with how we talk to each other in real life?” continued Veena Sud.
The pitching process to both streamers and traditional broadcasters is largely the same. “You need to be clear there is an arc in the season. In general, you need to sell the characters, the story, and the ideas so people invest in the element you put together. It’s so liberating to think of story in a new way,” said Kauffmann.
Pitching for streamers often requires pitching two to three seasons before the first season is greenlit. The pitches often become less progressively detailed in the second and third seasons.
Comedy and Drama have their own nuances in terms of pitching. “Our engine is different. You have to know the show must have legs over several seasons and there could be a landing point where the show naturally runs its course. You don’t have to do the same level of advanced thinking as with dramas.”
Grace and Frankie is an outlier on Netflix in that is into its seventh season. That’s almost fifty in dog years. Kauffmann commandeered ten seasons of Friends, so she understands what a long-running comedy is like. Still, she lives in the knowledge that there will come a time when Grace and Frankie won’t be renewed. “It was exciting to write something where I don’t know where it was going to end,” she mused.
The abundance of viewing analytics on streaming platforms also provides additional information in terms of determining the direction of a TV show. Sometimes it can inspire showrunners to further explore a character or a relationship dynamic or it might not. “Viewing data doesn’t inform the story. I know what my show is,” concluded Kauffmann. “I don’t write by committee,” added Sud.
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