21 June 2011

Anarcho-syndicationalism, or why I hate US TV

So last night we watched the season finale of Game of Thrones, and coincidentally enough over the weekend finished watching Season 1 of The Wire.

Short Version: I liked them both.

Medium Version: I liked them both, because they were well written with a consistent narrative, complex story arcs and genuine character development, all features that stand in stark contrast to most US television (no pun intended).

Long, Probably Too Long, Version:
Extended stays in hospital aside I tend not to watch too much television. I may watch a good few too many television programs, but mostly these will be on DVD or recorded on a DVR. I watch television purposefully, as in I say to myself, "This evening I will mostly be watching... Blahblah", as opposed to an uncoordinated and random number of hours sat sprawling on a couch absorbing anything that is regurgitated upon your eyeballs because you can't quite reach the remote.

This means that effectively over the last three weeks the only television that I have watched has been either Game of Thrones, The Wire or Community, and when you have such a blinkered exposure it is easy to forget that 99.9% of all television is painful and excruciating poo.

In a discussion on Innesentials a few weeks ago on I explained why I really disliked the final season of Lost (and the whole show really), or more accurately the thread was about religious iconography in the show, I just chose to talk about why I hated the last season. As the only qualified theologian in the discussion, I felt no need to stay on topic. It boiled down to the nature of US TV writing, the fact that most shows had numerous writers and it really felt at times that there was no consistency from one episode to another. After watching the first seasons of both The Wire and Game of Thrones I am more convinced about my argument than ever.

Television (excluding oddities like the BBC) is a very commercial enterprise. TV shows are produced to make money for the networks that broadcast and/or produce them. In the US money is made in five main ways: a) through advertising sold by the network to be broadcast when the show airs, b) through in-show product placement, c) foreign sales of the show, d) dvd sales and e) through selling successful shows to local TV stations to show repeat screenings of the show, or syndication. For syndication to work a series normally needs to have at least 100 episodes, because local TV stations build their schedules around blocks of 100 episodes, ie showing a show every weekday at 5pm or 11pm for four months.

Syndication has two major effects on the quality of TV shows, firstly most US network shows tend to run for 22-25 episodes per season with the goal of staying on air for at least four years to hit that magic 100 episodes syndication target. 25 episodes of an hour-long drama would be almost imposible for a single writer to produce (though J. Michael Straczynski managed to write over 90 of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5 back in the 90's), and so producers bring in many writers often simultaneously working independently of each other and unaware of what each other are adding to the show. Quality is often not as important as the quantity of episodes, and while "clip-shows" are less common than ten years ago, "filler" episodes that add little of any substance to the season as a whole still occur with great frequency.

The second major effect of aiming for syndication is based on the future audience's viewing patterns. While a fan viewing the show the first time it airs might tune in regularly each week, when a show makes it to syndicated repeats it is unlikely that most viewers will be tuning in every single day to watch it, rather they will watch it irregularly, tuning in when they have nothing else better to do because it is a familiar presence and they don't have to think too much about it. Because of this irregular pattern of viewing, the syndicated show needs to be self-contained, without asking the viewer to be intricately familiar with what has come before. Think about most police procedurals, or US comedy shows, essentially the same thing happens each week with little character development, it doesn't matter if you've seen it ten times before or only once, you know exactly what you are going to get each time you sit down to watch it.

I hate this, with a passion.

I want a TV series to run like a novel. I want to feel like there is a consistent narrative running throughout the whole series, that things happen for a reason and that characters grow and develop over time in reaction to the events that unfold. I want to be treated as if I have some intelligence and can follow things without constantly having to have everything that happened more than ten minutes ago explained to me. I want to believe that there is a reason from episode one for the series to exist, and that everything over the course of the show's run illuminates and builds upon that reason. And above all else I don't want to feel like the producers are just making it all up as they go along.

This is why I liked Game of Thrones and The Wire so much, and not coincidently they both exist outside the mainstream network/syndication model, as both are produced by HBO. For those of you unfamiliar with HBO, it is a subscription-only cable television channel that neither shows advertisements nor is focused on syndicating its shows out to other TV stations. HBO tends to run much shorter series with between ten and thirteen episodes per series being typical, and this allows for a much tighter production with fewer writers and a greater emphasis placed on storytelling. If a viewer has gone to the effort to pay up front to see shows on HBO, it can be assumed that they will tune in more regularly to the shows and so producers don't have to worry so much about alienating newbies tuning in for the first time halfway through a series. Strong narrative writing with complex story arcs running across multiple episodes thrives in such an environment, and in the bubble-wrapped world of the DVD box set it is easy to forget how unique such shows are.

So basically the nature of US television, the medium itself, is the reason why most US TV shows are so bad. The content is constricted by the format, and quality suffers greatly as a consequence.

Oh, and winter is coming, Beatches! Mos def.

(See, we made it to the end without Spoilers of any kind, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the comments thread. You have been warned)

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At 5:48 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

I'm confused...

you _liked_ Lost, but _hate_ shows where the producers seem to be making it up as they go along? ;P

At 7:40 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

erm, no, I hated Lost. That was the whole point of my original argument. In Lost they [i]were[/i] just making it up as they went along, and the last series was particularly egregious. "Hey lads, how do we finish it all off?", "dunno, how about we say it was god, angels and purgatory all along". "Sounds good to me"

pathetic, I hated it.

At 12:26 am, Blogger Alex said...

Ned's dead Baby, Ned's dead

At 10:58 am, Blogger Jonzer said...

Go on The Wire! Game of Thrones was stunning. Apart from anything else, I was most impressed with the non-Americanness of it on an American TV station. Also, it is one of the best written twisted web of lies and deceit to have made it on screen since the first season of Twin Peaks. I cannot wait ten months for Season 2 of GoT, I am going to get stuck into the books right now.

At 11:12 am, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@Alex - Spookily that is word for word almost the first thing that I said to The Very Understanding Girlfriend after we watched that episode. Nothing quite beats the satisfaction of an appropriated pop culture reference.

@Jonzer - The presence of so many UK actors in both shows brought both a different style of acting and a different look to the show as well, not everyone is a cookie-cutter corn-fed lantern-jawed Iowa or a plasticated botox barbie. It was a bit freaky though seeing Bree's da on GoT, at least he didn't have a gratuitous sex scene.

Also, I haven't read the books, and I'm not going to. I think I'm having too much fun not having a clue what happens next - if I'd known about Ned since episode one the whole thing would have ben a very different show indeed.

At 2:24 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Thanks for the spoilers dicks! ;P

Ah didn't quite twig that you hated Lost...despite your dislike of it you watched the whole thing? Personally I gave up at the start of S2...

At 5:17 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about West Wing? character development, real story arcs, and smart writing. US tv, though definitely an exception.

At 8:54 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

best combination of The Wire and Game of Thrones in one sentence, evah. GoT The Wire?
Also The West Wing is still better (though only at start of Season 4 of The Wire so far) and ER the first about 5 seasons are also amazing. If underappreciated by the too cool school. TWW took heavily from ER's style and cinematography subsequently.


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