Television / Netflix

Beyond Binge-Watching: The Evolution of Television

“Are you still watching?” the screen taunts. Well, of course we are. There is no denying it: we are hooked.

Binge-watching has become the ultimate way to consume television. It is no longer surprising to hear that people regularly watch more than a year’s worth of episodes in weeks, finishing full series in months. This trend in viewing has had important effects on the television industry. For example, several new shows have been created under the assumption that the viewer will be binge-watching them, such as the Netflix shows House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, which are released as full seasons instead of serialized as weekly episodes. More importantly, the standards of television seem to have shifted. Many new shows have a more intense focus on narrative structure, plot and character development. As a result, television has been elevated as an art form in its own right.

The emergence of binge-watching did not initially prompt the evolution of television. The first wave of quality television shows had shows such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire. Similar to those today, these shows told relatively logical stories composed of meaningful plotlines and realistic characters. But binge-watching has been instrumental in ushering in the next phase of the television narrative’s evolution. With serialized television shows, the goal is to sustain a large viewership over an extended period of time so that profitability is favored over quality of story. While viewership is still important to shows released in full, producers no longer need to worry about viewers coming back each week. Instead, the show’s audience needs to be invested enough to keep clicking “play next.” Now it is more important to have a logical story arc and characters worth caring about. The quality of the show will draw a decent viewership and keep the audience from clicking “back to browser.”

This change is one of the most fascinating advances in media in recent decades. But it is not totally unparalleled. It mirrors another prominent form of fiction: the novel. As a literary form, the novel as we know it today came into being during the nineteenth century, primarily in Great Britain, in the Victorian Era. Many factors have contributed to the rise in popularity of the novel. A dramatic increase in literacy, resulting from industrialization and then the rise of the middle class, incited the growth of potential readership. Encouraged as a way to spend leisure time as well as the hours spent commuting to and from the city, reading became a largely popular activity. Fiction stories were serialized originally, similar to television shows, and published as installments in magazines or periodicals, which also contributed to the growth of readership. Serialized stories were much cheaper than those published in full, which enabled a greater number of people to have access to fiction.

In both Europe and the United States, as the market for fiction stories expanded the production of serialized stories declined. The desire to read increased across the various classes and reached a watershed; as a result, more and more people were willing to buy full novels. Publishers eventually found it viable to lower the prices of full novels, and serialization became less popular. This was agreeable to the general readership, as people were eager to consume fictional stories in full, instead of having to wait months at a time for installments.

With the novel, a change in the production format allowed for a change in the medium itself. In literary theory, scholars contend that the novel constantly evolves. Ideally, with each new novel published, ideas about what narrative structures constitute a “real” novel change. Simply put, the form of each novel builds off older novels, allowing for experimentation with content and structure.

A similar type of change is happening with television. Television already is a unique form of fiction. It mimics film in that it has the ability to present the story in various dimensions, not only through dialogue and narration but also through the facial expressions and body language of actors, visual effects, scenery, music, and wardrobe design. When well-orchestrated, television can provide an impressive experience, as film does. But the two media differ temporally. With film, there is a fixed amount of screen time: Only so much can be explored in a few hours. In television, over the course of seasons, the number of hours comprising the show allows for the deeper examination of several elements of the story, primarily character and plot. Because of its longer screen time, television has an advantage in pacing and depth. Somehow it has become harder for the viewer to commit to watching a three-hour movie rather than a series of thirty-minute shows for three hours.

There are incredible opportunities for artistic and narrative advancement in television, such as plot. In several serialized sitcoms and dramas, plots, based purely on high emotions and cheap gimmicks, have no logical end. Case in point: Grey’s Anatomy. It is ridiculous that the show is in its twelfth season. Even though the majority of the main characters are long gone and the plotlines are frustratingly repetitive, the show makes enough money and has enough of a fan base. Consequently, it is going to remain on air with no dignified, narratively-just end in sight.

Newer television shows treat plot with care. Their stories have solid narrative arcs, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. One such show is B.B.C. America’s Orphan Black. In an interview after the end of the show’s second season in 2014, creator John Fawcett said, “Back in the beginning, it was a story in three parts. It’s expanded a bit now, but ultimately, the destination is still the same, and a lot of the big tent-pole elements to the show will always remain the same.” Even though Fawcett does not write out individual seasons in specifics, the show’s story is grounded around central conflicts and plot devices. There is a meaningful point to everything as the narrative builds to a concrete ending. This increased focus on plot is an important advancement in television’s narrative structure. With a specific plot, these television shows can utilize the artistic value of the medium and tell genuine stories.

Another thing to consider is character development. In better quality shows there is generally a greater emphasis on complex characters. Show creators have the chance to explore realistic human experiences and emotions through their characters, instead of just basing them on recycled tropes. Fargo, for example, has rich, multilayered characters. Especially in the first season, each character subverted the trope they were first placed in. Beyond that, the characters seem to have their own agency in the story. Although the show is incredibly plot driven, in both seasons, the characters’ actions are what drive the story; they are not just pawns in the writer’s grand scheme. Both these qualities are important for advancing the role of character development in television narratives. In creating more humanized characters, there is a greater chance the viewer will connect and invest in them.

One of the strongest pieces of evidence pointing to an ongoing evolution in the television medium is the sheer abundance of and accessibility to high-quality shows. There is a wide range of incredible shows for people of virtually all interests, ages, and genders. This diversity is indeed essential to television’s evolution, since it promotes variety and experimentation. As with the novel, the idea of what is “acceptable” for television narratives will expand as more shows challenge those constraints. With both the novel and television, changes in production of the medium allowed for changes in overall narrative structure. Eventually, further experimentation with form led to an improvement in storytelling. This is what makes this current evolution of television so exciting. We have only just begun to see where new modes of storytelling will take us.

And to see what is to come, we just have to keep clicking “play next.”