“The audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House of Cards – then we should let them binge.” – Kevin Spacey
The first actor to deliver the prestigious McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival was Kevin Spacey and he said a lot that needed to be said – let the creative drive the output and not the suits behind the scenes; allow shows to build and develop instead of having to pitch with a pilot first; the risk of conservatism taking over the TV agenda are all strong and valid arguments. But we parted at the point where he talked about people being able to binge by getting all the episodes in one go from providers. Releasing all the episodes in one go might stop the illegal downloaders to a point, but on the other hand you are giving them access to your whole series in one go.
For me the joy of great TV is that it can do what film, books and the theatre can’t, what the Americans call the “Watercooler Moments”. When people gather together physically or online to chat about something they watched on the box the previous night. The episodic nature of a top quality television series not only allows audiences to build by word of mouth, but if done well can engage everyone in a conversation and feel invested in that show. The best example in recent months would be “Broadchurch” the wonderful Chris Chibnall series on ITV. By allowing characters to develop week on week as the truth about the murder of young Danny Latimer we invested in the show in a way we wouldn’t on DVD Boxset or all episodes on demand – it becomes the lost art of event TV.
I love DVD box sets and watched most of the early seasons of “24” that way, but event TV and the episodic is an important part of the medium. Another recent example would be the end of David Tennant’s reign as The Doctor where he started to regenerate at the end of the episode “The Stolen Earth” after being shot by a Dalek. The speculation, discussion and drama of it made it a great way to leave the audience on a cliff-hanger, the likes of which tend to be confined to the soap operas these days. A good cliff-hanger leaves the audience on the edge of their seats wanting the next episode, it follows from the tradition of the publications of the 19th century when writers like Dickens and Doyle wrote their now classic stories as weekly serials.
Too often these days we are spoon-fed everything and we take the things we’re shown for granted. I watch things on the iPlayer that I’ve missed and I download programmes from the Sky library but there is no substitute for that collective experience. “Who shot JR” from Dallas wouldn’t have worked if we could have watched the next episode immediately, we would never have been so upset when Chris Eccleston’s character was killed of so unexpectedly in Cracker and would we have enjoyed the final episode of Friends as much – or developed such an attachment to the characters – if we could have watched all 234 episodes in one go?
Yes there is a place for the binge viewer, it’s called a DVD Boxset where you can watch a whole series over a weekend. I like the fact that if we invest in our favourite shows we are rewarded by a long and fruitful relationship rather than a disappointing quickie.