Marathon viewing is forcing showrunners to evolve
Binge-viewing is one of the most profound changes to hit the smallscreen business in memory, a revolution in the way TV is distributed and consumed.
By Advanced Television’s estimate, 70% of U.S. viewers self-identify as “binge-ers,” and Netflix’s decision to put out full seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” day and date practically begs a marathon.
But is binging changing the way TV is written? Scribes on today’s most avidly devoured series reflexively deny it, but when pressed, they admit they’re having to evolve with the times.
“I just write the show,” reports Julian Fellowes when asked about catering to a marathon of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” D.B. Weiss, partnered with David Benioff on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” says: “From the outset, the goal with ‘Game’ was to tell a single, coherent, 70-plus-hour story, with a beginning, middle and end.”
“House of Cards” writer Beau Willimon says: “No one would ask the author of a novel, ‘Do you write it thinking that someone is going to read it in one sitting, or a chapter here, a chapter there?’ I think it’s analogous to what’s happening in TV.”
Really? Charles Dickens, who doled out most of his novels in monthly installments, wrote to a friend: “Notice how patiently and expressly the thing has to be planned for presentation in fragments, and yet for afterwards fusing together as an uninterrupted whole.”
Dickens preened that he felt he’d become “rather cunning in this regard,” and if you press them, showrunners reveal similar cunning. Even Willimon, who says: “You’re on a slippery slope if you’re trying to write to a binge-watching experience,” acknowledges viewers “might watch it all in two days, or over two months,” so “it has to be able to work both ways.”
“Exposition is the writer’s enemy,” says Simon Blackwell, co-exec-prod of HBO’s “Veep,” which posts all old episodes on HBO Go. “It would be wonderful if we could guarantee everyone would binge-watch it, because you have to keep bringing back a plot point for episode 6, which, if people were watching in a three- or four-hour swoop, they would remember from episode 4.”
“Veep” seeks to satisfy sipper and big gulper alike. “We have a story arc for the entire season, but we also try to make each episode make sense in itself and its story to wrap up, yet still pull you into the next episode.”
“Game of Thrones,” with its multiple story arcs, raises transition concerns. “Discontinuities between episodes that used to be minor issues stand out a lot more when you’re rolling right from one episode into another,” Weiss says. “The knowledge that many people will be watching them back to back informs those choices.”
In another sense, reports Benioff, “one obvious repercussion of binge viewing is the lack of a season break, which means characters can age rather dramatically between episodes. One day Brandon Stark is a little boy; the next he’s sporting a mustache and a Barry White voice.”
Fellowes advises getting the details right. “In the old days in a soap, someone would have a plot one year that they were barren, and then three years later they’d give birth to twins, and nobody would ever explain, did they take this miracle cure in Argentina? … But you can’t really do that now.”
In the end, Blackwell’s bullishness on binging — “I think it could possibly be a richer experience” — is applicable to all these series. “You’d be attuned to the characters more acutely than if you were watching on a weekly basis,” he says. “You’d be immersed in the world more. Like a bath of ‘Veep,’ instead of a series of showers.”