Why we shouldn’t mourn the death of scheduled television
Netflix used to deliver your DVDs by mail. After a few years they made the predictable shift to a digital distribution model. But few people foresaw that they would follow networks like HBO and AMC and move into creating what the Americans love to call ‘original programming’.
But they have, and they haven’t gone about it half-cocked either. Instead they’ve spent $100m on an ultra-glossy, David-Fincher-produced, Kevin-Spacey-starring, political drama based on the classic UK series, House of Cards.
House of Cards began on Friday, and it ends whenever you want it to. Because Netflix are letting you stream all 13 episodes of the series straight away, if you really want to spend an entire day pigging out on some Machiavellian, Whitehouse-based wickedness.
It’s tempting, when faced with this kind of seismic shift, to focus on the negatives and begin lamenting the loss of everything we once held dear: predictability, schedules, mass-participation… our jobs. But take even a brief glance at the column marked ‘positives’ and things start looking up. Here are four examples to get things started:
The schedule hasn’t disappeared, it’s waiting to be made: Let’s face it, schedules sucked anyway. Seemingly arbitrary, prone to last-minute changes, and increasingly redundant in this era of catchup and timeshifting, even the concept of ‘the watershed’ seems like a laughable relic of a less enlightened time. But now we don’t have the broadcasters enforcing their schedules on us, it frees us up to create our own. So who will be the new curators of sequential television? People still crave that collective experience, they just don’t want it forced on them. So who will have the influence, the reach and the means to influence when people want to watch that next episode? What happens when people choose to view something at a specific time rather than being forced to, and what might convince them to do that?
Embracing chaos – the end of sequential episodes: Later this year, Netflix will release all 14 episodes of the new series of much-loved cult comedy Arrested Development. It’s rumoured that each episode will concentrate on an individual character and will therefore stand alone, independent of the other 13 episodes. In other words: you don’t have to watch the episodes in any particular order. Brilliant.
This is the TV series reimagined as a jigsaw puzzle: flexible, malleable, interchangeable. A Rubix puzzle moving at a million pixels per frame. A choose-your-own adventure in sparkling high-definition. A televisual anagram waiting to be unlocked.
No more Fireflies. An end to cowardice: The fact that Arrested Development is coming back at all speaks volumes about the opportunities that this development brings for experimentation. How many series have we seen cancelled or scuppered over the years thanks to kneejerk reactions based on dodgy metrics, shallow focus groups, and press bullying? You can’t nervously eye the bottom line of a budget spreadsheet when there’s an entire series done and ready to ship. You can’t just bail out and hope no one notices. Instead you have to regroup, refocus, reboot and dig in for the longtail. Weirdly, short sharp blasts of television are set to create more perennial television. (Joss Whedon: all is forgiven.)
An end to multiplatform, and the beginning of genuine convergence: Television has finally kneeled to the power of the internet. It’s no longer the aging dictator in the corner of the room, defiantly insisting on its superiority just because it’s been around for quite a while. Television is now no longer a channel, it’s just another medium, and as such it will have to learn to play nicely along with all the other mediums. Schedules, budgets, methods and practices will converge far quicker. When the whole experience is digital there is just a single platform that offers a multitude of front doors, routes through, and next steps.
When the whole experience is created seamlessly then it can be experienced seamlessly… and then something else will come along to disrupt everything all over again.
Rob Hinchcliffe, community strategist at digital strategy agency TH_NK