Thursday, June 9, 2016

Writing for the Binge-Watch [Guest Poster: Jennifer Iacopelli]

Binge-watching has, without a doubt, changed the television industry. Shows that would normally get the axe are breathed into new life on a streaming service. Shows that normally wouldn’t get a green light from a major network are allowed a chance to flourish. Miss the first two seasons of a show that suddenly everyone seems to be talking about? Mainline the series in a week and join the horde desperately waiting for the premiere before anyone even notices you were out of the loop.

Personally, I love a good binge-watch and I know I’m not alone. I’m all about grabbing my favorite spot on the couch, firing up my Apple TV and burning through hours of my weekends and days off fully immersed in my favorite TV universe. For a viewer, binge-watching is the ultimate in instant gratification: no commercials and no cliffhangers.

But as we enter a world where a show’s success has begun to be linked to DVR and streaming numbers, this effect has begun to trickle into the writers’ room. More and more, as a viewer, I’m seeing seasons of TV constructed solely for the payoff at the very end of the season — plots creeping along at a snail's pace, pieces on a chessboard moving only after episode-long deliberations by each and every character.

Now, I’m not saying that every show needs to be procedural. Personally, I’m more of a fan serialized TV. I’m willing to stick around for the long haul and delay gratification. Shows like LOST, Game of Thrones, The 100, and The Walking Dead have always been my favorites. I go into the season knowing the plot threads will twist and knot before detangling into an, ideally, satisfying season finale. However, the success of serialized TV has always hinged upon creating an engaging hour every week — a narrative to follow for forty minutes, tossing breadcrumbs to the audience from within that week’s story arc.

More and more it seems, the serialized shows gracing our airwaves revolve solely around the conclusion rather than the story itself. Character development takes second place to shock value plot points — often a violent act, particularly involving POC, LGBTQIA characters, and women — and fans spend full seasons simply speculating which character will get the proverbial, or literal, axe in the finale.

I’d argue this shift is the fault of the binge-watch mentality. A binge viewer watching a show like what I described above wouldn’t feel the slog of the plot or the drag of stagnant characters from week to week. For a show like The Walking Dead, an eight hour binge-watch — something easily done in a weekend — would bring a viewer to the midseason finale, frequently “celebrated” with a death. Another eight hours more would take them to the finale, usually an over-the-top episode — again typically marked with a death of a major character. Writers MUST deliver a payoff, sometimes at the expense of character or risk alienating viewers who will find something else to binge.

Similarly, on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, live viewers have almost painfully watched the plot inch along for six seasons, the narrative arcs separating into independent threads which have seemingly very little to do with each other. A show like Game of Thrones, which has been airing for six years, would be incomprehensible if a viewer hadn’t already watched over fifty hours of show prior to the season six premiere. If you missed it, you must binge-watch in order to understand and so... we do.

Studios have begun to understand the power of the binge, more so now than ever. The CW’s The 100 was arguably renewed because of its excellent Netflix numbers and the live-ratings bump it received after viewers “caught up” during hiatus.

In a recent Variety article, Netflix reported that serialized shows are some of their biggest binge hits, being devoured in less than a week. With streaming deals financially replacing the ever sought after syndication deal, there is no way this isn’t creeping its way into the writers’ room, where they know some of their viewers will watch week-to-week, but millions of others will experience the show differently — an emphasis on the building plot and mystery necessary to keep the viewer clicking immediately for the next episode.

It’s even begun to creep in between seasons. Major season-ending cliffhangers have become a rarity in serialized TV, but if showrunners and writers continue this trend of writing for the binge-watch, we may be in for many, many more. Season six of The Walking Dead ended in an incredibly frustrating cliffhanger for many viewers after the entire season had teased that moment. As showrunner Scott Gimple told Variety, “I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season seven premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season seven premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season six finale] sets up.” If my suspicions are true, Gimple isn’t worried about alienating his week-to-week viewers (a luxury afforded the head of a the most successful show on TV), but is playing to the binge-watcher, someone who might catch up over the hiatus and only have a few weeks to ruminate over the cliffhanger before the payoff during the season seven premiere.

Going forward, as viewers, we have a choice to make. If writers are writing to the binge, should we simply wait for full seasons to be added to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime instead of tuning in week to week? Do we refuse to commit to a show until season one has ended and has been renewed for season two, knowing we might be left hanging if we don’t? As lovers of television, it may be the only way to protect ourselves from months of dragging plots only to be left hanging at the end. That is, until the industry realizes that all shows should be released at once to allow the viewer to enjoy at their own pace. But that’s another conversation for another time. Until then, watch at your own risk!

1 comment:

  1. I used to being-watching when I started to watched tv show it’s was when I met torrent, I was 15 years and in my country was rare display tv show as it’s today.
    I used to spent the whole night watching 7-8 episodes of the same show, one episode after another without stopping.
    But today, after watching so many show weekly, I don’t like being-watching, I say that I being-watching something because of habit, but I normally do marathon and is always one more show at time.
    At the moment I'm “being-watching”: House of cards, The Wire, The Middle and Peaky blinders and when I sit a weekend to watch these show, I always watch 2 or 3 episodes of each.
    I always watch my show on my day-to-day, I think is more practical, I always watch 1 or 2 episodes of the show for week. (My reality is a little different, since I don’t reside in the countries in which the show are displayed, however, but later I follow weekly). Only with Kdrama I can watch 16 episodes in a weekend (but when I watch Kdrama, I can’t watch anything else).
    I need some time to enjoy the episodes, one episodes after the other of the same show it feel automatically, a cause and reaction of the action and plot, without really understanding the development of the characters or of the show.
    Even Cliffhangers for season finale or mid-finale have to be earned and not for shock values, information and developments have to be delivery every episode.

    But at the same time, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime or whatever, make their original show with the dynamic for being-watching, but I realize that the firsts episodes of the season are amazing, but the latest episodes them lose a little the force.

    I'm not I huge fan releasing all episodes at once, there’s a lot of show that have a different dynamic, as Mad Men or Peaky blinders, which will suffer with all the episodes releasing at once.
    But I believe that the formula of 22 episodes per season is too much, 13 episodes is enough.