The new face of TV

Streaming channels are revolutionising the way we watch TV. But will this change what (and how) it’s made? And what will change for viewers?

Our television habits are changing. Whereas media once came in clearly defined packages that we (mostly) understood – TV, film and the internet – these categories are now blurring, as we watch TV online and on mobiles and see big name movie stars and directors queuing up to make shows for subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. At last month’s Golden Globes, the best TV comedy award went to Transparent, a little-known (in the UK at least) show about a Los Angeles dad coming out as transgender to his family, which was commissioned by Amazon, while Kevin Spacey picked up the best actor in a TV drama gong for House of Cards, a Netflix offering. The success of these shows is held up as proof that the power within TV is shifting away from the traditional channels to the streaming services. But what does this actually mean in terms of what (and how) TV is made? And what will change for viewers? Here’s CR’s take:

We will get more of a say about what is made

Amazon operates a pilot system for its shows that is different from the traditional method – a one-off episode used to sell shows to a TV network that audiences may never see – in that it invites viewers to weigh in on whether they like them. The success of the pilot isn’t the only deciding factor for whether a show will be made on Amazon, and not every show will have one (the much-touted but as yet unmade new series from Woody Allen apparently won’t, for example) but it offers viewers a chance to support programmes that may be less overtly commercial.

“It was a whirlwind and so incredibly exciting to be reading reviews in real time,” said Transparent writer and director Jill Soloway in an interview in Indiewire from February 2014, just after the pilot launched. “Normally if somebody’s writing a pilot, I’m having to hope that straight white golf course male at the top of the chain will allow me to get to my people. But, oh, my people were watching it yesterday. It honestly feels slightly revolutionary.”

And even if we’re not consciously voting for a show, the streaming services are closely watching what – and how – we consume television, to create a more personalised service based on our choices. They use this information to help recommend other TV and films for us to watch, but also to help decide what kind of programming to commission.

It’s now cool to be on Amazon Prime or Netflix

Movie directors and actors working in TV is nothing especially new: HBO’s offerings over the years have shown how a shift to the small screen can be made appealing for stars. But the list of names attached to shows on Amazon or Netflix – examples include David Fincher, Woody Allen, Tina Fey, Gael García Bernal, and Jesse Eisenberg – prove that these outlets have no trouble attracting talent either.

These famous names are vital for the services, proving hugely valuable for picking up subscribers. “Amazon’s motive in signing Allen up for his first TV series is a smart one – as online studios further fracture the TV landscape, the value of a well-known brand is crucial,” wrote senior associate editor David Sims in The Atlantic last month. “Amazon Instant’s biggest problem is that people already pay for Netflix, maybe Hulu – making them less willing to chip in the extra bucks for another dedicated streaming service. So far Amazon has followed the same playbook as Netflix, mixing a smart development slate with some big names.”

Binge watching is now a thing…

The concept of binge viewing – hungrily watching one episode of a show after another – has been with us since the dawn of the TV box set. But streaming services are now actively encouraging us to watch programmes in this style by airing an entire season at once – all ten episodes of Transparent were released on the same day, for example.

For the producers at Amazon, this signifies a shift away from our previous understanding of what a television series even is. “It’s novelistic; it’s not episodic,” said Joe Lewis, Amazon Studio’s head of comedy, in the Hollywood Reporter last December. “We’ve never looked at this as anything but a continuous piece of five-hour entertainment. We’re actually getting to make up this new form of storytelling as we do it. That’s the only way to think about it. I don’t think about it as bingeing. We need to figure out a new word for it – it’s not film, and it’s not TV.”

Young people like streaming so eventually we all probably will

At last month’s International CES, a load of stats were released that showed that around half of millennials valued streaming services more than TV or cable, and only 55% tended to watch content on TV. While not that surprising, this data highlights the many different ways that people can view television and film content these days.

While the stats also suggested that older generations are more wedded to their TVs, those figures will inevitably fall over time, especially when those pesky kids start spelling out the benefits of streaming services to their older relatives and friends, and generally get older themselves.

TV advertisers will have less power (maybe)

I’m not going to bother to pronounce that streaming will be the death of TV advertising, as we’ve heard all that before, back in the mid-noughties. Advertising is a master at finding ways into all media, so it will no doubt appear in some (if not all) of these offerings too. However, the idea of ads breaking up our viewing seems less likely, and with subscription streaming services not beholden to advertising to survive in the way that terrestrial channels often are, there is less likely to be interference from brands about what is deemed ‘acceptable’ content, leading once more to increased creative freedom
(we hope).

Speaking to New York magazine’s Vulture website of the benefits of the subscriber model in September last year, Transparent’s Jill Soloway commented: “Normally, if you think about network television, I like to call it ‘shaving of the points’. You turn in your first draft and it’s great, and then there’s these really pointy parts, they’re funny or they’re weird or they’re odd, and they make it different, and you turn in your first draft and the network people say, ‘We love it. Would you mind just getting rid of these three or four things? They just raised red flags for us.’ So, then you shave off all those points that raised red flags, then it goes to the next group of people, and whatever might be left then gets shaved off again. It makes a lot of sense. They’re trying to sell that product to a company that’s trying to sell their product to people. So, they have to play it safe and they have to make these characters appeal to the largest audience. With Amazon, they’re able to deliver this show right to people. It doesn’t need to be mediated through three or four other corporations before it’s approved, and I guess they know that, and they understand that giving artists a lot of creative freedom is the easiest way to create content that will stand out in this really crowded landscape.”

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