Mark Lawson recently wrote about the joys of watching DVD box sets. Always a delight to see the popular press turn up late to the party (lurching towards the table with a cheap bottle of plonk, leering at guests with a lopsided grin). This mode of consuming TV, which I prefer to call binge watching, has been on the rise for years now. It's certainly the preferred method in this household, and in many others we're familiar with. We don't watch TV on a TV anymore, basically. The contemporary 'TV guide' looks pretty much like a shelf of DVD boxsets; as Lawson has it: "box sets are stacked high and wide in a Manhattan skyline of old programmes". Lawson is pretty good, as ever, on the basic and self-centred delights of watching TV shows via DVD boxsets. It's not really the extras, despite the occasional illuminating commentary, Watching bloopers and deleted scenes serve only to reinforce why they were deleted in the first place. It's certainly not the god-awful 'quirky' interfaces DVDs often have. It's basically the ability to mainline a show, episode after episode, at a pace that suits you, rather than a broadcaster's schedule. It should also be noted that Bittorrent-based TV watching provides the same basic promise, yet Lawson doesn't. Whilst fiddly and not as instantly gratifying, the same level of control is there, to watch show after show, sans-ads and disaggregated from increasingly irrelevant global release dates. It produces the same effects.
Binge watching may well become the preferred mode of consumption for any episodic TV (outside of soaps, where a daily rhythm seems more apposite.) Certainly, for the higher quality shows or documentaries - the usual set of multi-threaded narrative dramas dissected best in Steven Johnson's 'Everything Bad Is Good For You', with the odd non-US drama like 'Bleak House' or 'State Of Play' chucked in - the rush of watching 2 or 3 on the trot is seriously addictive. We've even constructed terminology for aspects of this experience, such as 'The Bridge', in which you watch the last episode of one season and go straight into the first episode of the next, the Ashtanga-like language indicating the sheer physicality of experiencing a cliff-hanger and resolution directly after each other.
So what's going on here? I don't think it's just the instant gratification that clicking play on the next episode affords. When binge watching really kicks in, the form of the content itself is implicitly involved, as I'd suggest that the tighter the 'universe' the show inhabits, the higher the levels of intensity involved. In other words, with a show like 'The West Wing' - of which more later - the same set of characters inhabiting largely the same few spaces of the same location over seven seasons creates a gravitational pull which is difficult to escape from. Similarly, 'Lost', in being confined by an island, builds up a fictional universe one is immersed for most of the episode, with flashbacks off-island simply a counterpoint to the resolution of returning to that natural prison. Arguably, most successful TV shows have attempted to create a tightly defined universe, whether that was Albert Square or Seinfeld's apartment. Yet combined with an ability to stay immersed in this world by simply clicking 'next episode', the binge tendencies are surely heightened.
(Reminds me of my latest business-idea-never-to-be-realised: a beautifully produced 'coffee table' book featuring cutaways, scale plans, projections, sections, maps of the fictional architecture and locations from popular TV shows. Rendered with the same loving detail that this book lavishes over Villa Savoy et al, this book would have richly-detailed spreads and diagrams of, for example: the horrendous houses, restaurants and offices of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', surely the most consistently appalling architecture and interiors ever seen on screen; the 70s concrete brutalism of the bunker systems from 'Lost'; the actual layout of 'The West Wing' building, which we really only see in fragments of tracking shots; the layout of the 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip' theatre and studios; a cutaway of the ludicrously constructed Bluth House from 'Arrested Development', and so on. Maps of Seinfeld locations and The Simpsons' Springfield already exist online, but I'm also thinking of the amazing Sketchup of the Brady Bunch house, rendered as if real even though it only ever existed as a set. This would be as a counterpoint to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater being rendered by video game engines - a real house treated as if fictional game architecture. This would be treating fictional architecture as if it were real. This, subsconsciously inspired by Geoff Manaugh's brilliant post about architectural criticism needing to address the built environment of video games, now I come to think of it. So should architectural publishing. Of course, a book featuring increasingly sophisticated video game maps and architecture would be equally appealing.)
There is something perfectly-formed about the length of TV shows - often between 20 and 45 minutes, particularly when stripped of adverts as they are via DVD or Bittorrent - which also facilitates this binge watching. This seems a particularly natural rhythm, the ability to take a breath in between episodes enabling 2 or 3 to be stacked effortlessly. Stopping and starting when you like is appealing too, enabling Wikipedia/IMDB lookups either during or inbetween episodes: "What's this OEOB they keep talking about?" "What's she been in?" ... In this sense, the control over playback also means that DVD/torrent-based watching fits into almost any gap. However, Lawson mentions that these shows, often originally made to host several commercial breaks, seem oddly disjointed when glued back together without the adverts:
"When you watch The West Wing, Lost or Shameless at home, each episode seems to have a false climax or cliffhanger every eight to 12 minutes, which is resolved or resumed too quickly."
So we're OK with disjointed playback when we're doing the disjointing; will TV increasingly be made with boxset or torrent in mind rather than advert-supported TV, to the extent that it flows properly without adverts? With more bandwidth, even the friction of buying a physical object—the boxset—disappears. The show is simply on-demand, and consumed at the rate the audience desires, rather than the artificial constraints imposed by broadcasters.
There was an angry, fascinating article by Nigel Andrews in the FT magazine a couple of weeks ago ('The Guess Men', 11 November 2006) on the form of contemporary mainstream film, suggesting this mode won't simply be confined to TV shows:
"Tomorrow we will watch films, or moving images with sound, in the same way that we read paperback books. We will do it on the bus or train. We will do it in the bath, the guym, the fast food restaurant. We will snatch and snack. We will develop as an evolutionary attribute the ability to stop and start viewing, just as we stop and start reading books, without losing the story momentum."
This is a rather bleak thought for those of us who enjoy the immersion and discipline of the two hour movie, watched straight through, with focus. But it seems this other mode may be hard to resist. A warmer thought about boxsets is that at least it's a transaction where people are paying directly for content. Lawson's piece is pretty good on the fundamental economic shift behind the boxset; Johnson's book also talks about this - about how the increased complexity of shows increases the potential for repeated viewing, and therefore the ability to re-sell shows direct to consumers as a boxset, having already sold it once to television networks.
Anyway, binge watching reached an apogee chez cityofsound when we ploughed through the entire series of 'The West Wing' in a matter of months. The pressure-cooker intensity and claustrophobia of the White House is perfect binge-fodder. And boy did we binge. It is, of course, utterly majestic television, even though the entire series could be seen as 'Democrat porn', creating a (Second) life-like alternate universe in which a good Democrat president resides in a well-meaning White House throughout much of George W. Bush's real world reign. It's as if Democrats viewers could shut out said real world and watch President Bartlet generally Do The Right Thing, enabling them to abdicate responsibility for the actualité going to hell in a handcart. Even the final Republican contender in the show, played by lovable Hawkeye, is pro-choice and essentially a decent guy. A Republican a Democrat could like. No hawks here. When storylines drifted from the real universe to the fictional one, refracted through the scriptwriters' prism to shift a conflict a thousand miles to the south or an issue a few degrees to the political right or left, they generally resolved in ways we could live with, entirely unlike the contemporary reality. However, leaving this aside - for it is not necessarily the show's fault - it is certainly one of the greatest television dramas ever produced, with immaculate writing, generally superb acting and no fear of setting the intellectual bar high. So coming off 'The West Wing', having watched 155 episodes in relatively quick succession, is something akin to TV cold turkey. So it's with some pleasure that we've started to watch Aaron Sorkin's latest venture, 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip', which is essentially a methodone-based substitute for 'The West Wing's' smack. Thus far, it's a bit lite in comparison, despite a superb 'Network'-style outburst by Judd Hirsch setting the tone, and the considerable presence of Bradley Whitford, Ed Asner, John Goodman and others. Yet occasionally the quality of Sorkin's writing and thinking shines through.
Finally, you might note that many of the above references are to American TV shows, which might appear odd in our Anglo-Australian household. There are British TV shows which produce similar effects - see some of the list at the bottom of Mark Lawson's article, for example. However, you don't need me to tell you that American TV is extremely good at the high-end of this medium, particularly the long-running serial drama. It's also particularly bad at the low- and mid-range. But there's possibly something else going on here too - and that's that the art produced by a declining empire is often pretty compelling.