Binge Viewing is Forcing Showrunners to Evolve

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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.”

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  1. Susan says:

    What a stupid article.

    “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.”

    Wow, that would be a really groundbreaking concept if J.R. Ewing wasn’t already employing it 35 years ago.

  2. Dan says:

    The title leads to some misunderstanding. Binge watching is certainly bringing up new discussions and new ways of thinking of old aspects. But it’s not necessarily “forcing showrunners to evolve”, no so far and not so ostensibly, according to showrunners themselves and to that same statement one of them makes: there’s no way of knowing how the show will be consumed. I’d say a much better story would be made just raising the issue, not stating this “forcing to evolve” as if it’s already a reality.

  3. peterblood71 says:

    I think it’s a wonderful trend. It IS richer and audiences get more excited. Cable shows with extended story lines and arcs are rapidly becoming the preferred entertainment experience over much shorter movies which are more icing than meat. Cable show Game of Thrones makes theatrical movies like Lord Of The Rings look like kiddie fare and far less interesting.

  4. Netflix is really changing the game. Many of these shows I’d never watched before until Netflix gave me the chance to catch up. For example, I never watched Breaking Bad, heard later it was great, thought “well it’s too late to get into it now I’ve missed so much” until I found out I could catch up on the whole series on netflix.

  5. Joey Jacobs says:

    People forget that JM Straczynski was doing this in the 90s (or, really, planning his stuff in the 80s) with Babylon 5. A five year arc planned before the show was even shot, plus A/B/C storylines planned for contingencies. And he wrote nearly every episode. Can’t think of a single showrunner with that kind of dedication or skill out there working today – even the ones who rewrite all their staff writers don’t have the forethought to plan 5 years before shooting.

    There are just too many plotholes and disappearing threads in everything from Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black to The Wire, Lost, 24, Buffy, Game of Thrones and every other supposedly “great” show. And there always will be.

    Winnie Holzman has the skills to do it, but hasn’t been given the freedom of cable to play with. So, we’ll see if Roadies goes there. Guess we’ll have to wait for Sense8 to see if there’s really anyone still doing what JMS was doing back then.

    • Daniel Muro says:

      @ Joey–the second incarnation of Battlestar Galactica also had an arc to it. I binge watched the series on DVD before there was Netflix, and was able to track the the series from beginning to end, though admittedly there were threads that could have been expanded upon. Still it was quite different than what was on most networks and cable at the time–one shot episodes that did not lead into the next or a large storyline, or worse, reality tv. That is pehaps one of the things that made it a good show and why it was able to portray current political and philosophical points that garnered it so many awards.

      As for Orange is the New Black, Buffy, Game of Thrones, etc.–overall those shows have or had a loose story arc, but I don’t think it detracted from the series from not having a say strict 5 years story arc. Sometimes stand alone episodes are great (and what made Buffy or rather Joss Whedon outstanding in that respect such as the stand alone black and white silent episode) and rather enhance that show in the end.

      I think great writing is the key to whatever approach is taken.

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