Binging is rarely looked upon as something to be proud of, but every time 13 hours of a show like House of Cards is dumped onto our Netflix playlists, suddenly all anyone can talk about online is how fast they got through the whole series. This of course happened in the last weekend of February, where Netflix ejaculated the whole third series adventures of Kevin Spaceys manoeuvring, conniving, murdering and most of all monologue-ing politician (now President) Frank Underwood into the peaceful living-room based habitat of their passive subscribers. The third series of House of Cards had been online a mere 9 hours before I got home from work that Friday, February 27th, yet already there were reviews online about “mid-season” shenanigans and even reviews of the shows final episode, and subsequently the series as a whole.
I had nothing to do that Friday night, so I decided that if I was to achieve nothing else that weekend, it would be the passive consumption of an entire season of high quality (production values anyway) TV. Resigned to the decision, I slipped off my work clothes, laid down on the couch in my underpants and did what Netflix told me to do: I checked out the new series of House of Cards. I’m not proud of it, but I shall boast about it anyway: I watched the entire season over that weekend. Season 3 of House of Cards is much like Seasons 1 and 2: slightly above average TV, but extremely well made. The series as a whole was interesting, but by far the most interesting aspect for me came right in the first episode, and had absolutely nothing to do with Kevin Spacey, or politics, or Washington skulduggery. What was interesting in that first episode is that after a brief check-in with President Underwood and his wife, the story then shifts to a supporting character, Doug Stamper, who had been Underwoods right hand man in Seasons 1 and 2. Injured at the end of the previous season, the first episode is spent mostly dealing with his isolated recovery from injury, and apart from the beginning and end of the hour long episode, the President barely gets a look-in. What is so interesting about it is that this structure of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 is only possible because every single person who is watching that episode has the ability to watch all subsequent episodes immediately afterwards.
Traditional, conventional TV shows are defined by their constraints. Television networks operate in a two-sided market where TV shows are used to attract eyeballs, and the precise details of the number and demographic make-up of these eyeballs are used to attract advertising money from anyone who wants to advertise during the commercial break of a TV show. In the US, which is where most of the shows anyone watches are produced, a TV drama such as a procedural cop show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will be reported as lasting for one hour, yet when you watch an episode on DVD or online, you will see that it actually barely lasts 45 minutes, meaning that if you watched this episode when you were supposed to, during its debut on TV where advertising revenue is greatest, more than 25% of what you were watching would have been commercials.
Writers, producers and directors of hour-long TV shows in the US know this of course, and therefore build the enforced pauses caused by ad breaks into the episodes. If you watch an episode of a 45 minute American TV show online, you can easily spot where the ad breaks would have been. In something like CSI, an interesting clue may be revealed, causing everyone to look at each other, and then the screen fades to black. After a few seconds, the show returns, showing the exterior of a different location, and we are back in business. In a show like CSI, which doesn’t require a massive IQ to enjoy, what will often happen then is a character will casually re-explain the plot thus far to someone else, just in case you forgot who you were while watching ads for Fast and the Furious 10 (or whatever godawful crap is advertised to people who watch CSI). This is done far more subtly in many shows, but the main point is that the revenue model behind the TV industry has always affected the plot and narrative structure of television shows.
I mentioned previously that the highest advertising revenue potential for a TV show exists during its premiere. This is a highly outdated metric, and has led to the death of many a fine TV show, but in any case it still exists to this day and is how the success or failure of a show is measured by TV Networks and advertisers. While many problems exist with this model, I find the main one is that due to the necessity of making sure an entire targeted audience is in the same place at the same time (in front of their TV’s) it requires the show to be played on a weekly basis, therefore staggering the entire series of up to 24 episodes over the course of many months. We are accustomed to the idea of waiting a week to watch the next episode of a TV show, but this too effects how an individual episode progresses, from a narrative point of view. Each individual episode works towards capturing the viewer within its world, and immersing him/her in its atmosphere. Even if the viewer can stay within this world through multiple ad breaks, the effect will certainly not last until the next week, where the viewer continues the series. This therefore means that every TV show under this revenue model has to designate a few minutes of its already constrained running time (<45 minutes) on building up this atmosphere again. This is the origin of pre-opening credits opening scenes which exist simply to re-acclimatise the viewer to the atmosphere of the show they are watching. Those cheesy CSI:Miami opening scenes with David Caruso arriving at a murder scene and delivering a terrible pun exist simply because anyone watching his show hasn’t seen him for a week and needs a reminder of who the hell he is.
It’s obviously difficult to tell a grand, overarching, nuanced narrative over several weeks in this set-up, and this also has an effect on the type of stories that can be told in traditional TV shows. If you ever wondered why a story can be introduced, explored, and resolved in the space of 43 minutes in a procedural American cop show, this is it: same characters, new disposable plot every week. All that is necessary to remember is a vague recollection of the characters, but they will reintroduce themselves at the beginning anyway.
This, by and large, is how TV shows have been formulated since their inception in the middle of the 20th Century. The revenue model of the TV industry was a boon on creativity and innovation in storytelling (Twin Peaks being the obvious outlier), and only the eventual realisation by the industry that revenue could be obtained elsewhere, through pay TV channels, DVD sales and subsequently online streaming subscriptions did the makers of TV shows consider that the way things were always done was not the way that they always had to be. House of Cards is produced by Netflix, and will never be serialised on a TV network in any large advertising market, and this removes a lot of constraints to what its creators can do. Further constraints are alleviated by having all episodes available to viewers instantaneously. I mentioned earlier on that I was interested in the fact that so much of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 was spent on a supporting character, Doug Stamper. Just imagine this occurring in a highly anticipated traditional season opener, where little was learned about the main characters, and viewers would have to wait an entire week for the next episode. It simply wouldn’t happen, as advertisers and viewers alike wouldn’t be satisfied, and the only reason the people who make House of Cards can do it is purely because of the distribution and revenue structure of their show/product.
Any decent TV show presented to us in the past should be commended, as the makers had to deal with great constraints in order to deliver a quality finished product, but the success of House of Cards and its new online revenue model means that all of the traditional constraints of television storytelling will now be lifted, and the potential of television as a narrative device can truly be explored. An early mover in this department was the most recent series of Arrested Development, released entirely on Netflix in May 2013. The series was much maligned by fans of the show, yet in the near-future it will be viewed as a template for how to produce a binge-watchable show. Its creators knew their hardcore viewers would be finished watching the entire series mere hours after it would be uploaded onto Netflix, and therefore created a series that shifted the boundaries of what to expect from a show: each episode showed the same events of the overarching narrative from different perspectives, meaning events from episode 5 could replay in episode 7, from a different perspective, and change the viewers mind on what was actually occurring in the earlier episode. One binge-watch of the fourth season of Arrested Development is not enough to appreciate the scope of its creators accomplishments. The entire series is a very flawed successful circular reference, but must be applauded for its early attempts to play with the narrative potential made possible by its new distribution method. Interrupted constantly by ads, and subsequent episodes delayed by a week, such storytelling would be possible, and the same goes for much of the latest season of House of Cards. The possibility of binge-watching new TV shows through online streaming may have changed how we expect to watch TV, but also it will increasingly change the nature of the entertainment product we are consuming. That’s right, must-binge TV just became self aware.