Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Television and the Long Narrative

This morning Don Reisinger’s The Digital Home blog on the CNET Blog Network posted an interesting statistic about the consumption of media.  His post cited Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos as saying that “50 percent, and sometimes, 60 percent, of viewing [on Netflix] is TV episodes now.”  The rest of the post involved taking different approaches to analyzing this data point.  In reading it, however, I realized that, while I have never used Netflix, I subscribe to a rich assortment of premium cable channels and use my DVR heavily.  In that context my own practices are consistent with Sarandos’ data.

The fact is that both my wife and I are interested in extended narratives that put as much time into developing character as into spinning out an extended plot line through an imaginative repertoire of discourse techniques.  These days our tastes seem to be satisfied by multi-episode television series far better than by almost all of the feature films that find their way from movie houses to cable.  I would even go so far as to say that these days those feature-length films that seem to hold my attention best are documentaries, since the capacity for storytelling in a feature-length film has, for the most part, devolved to the tediously formulaic.

Much of this has to do with the impact that HBO has made on our media tastes.  However, even before we became early and rabid fans of The Wire, we had been drawn into some early ventures into sophisticated narrative that took place outside the domain of premium cable channels.  Twin Peaks was, for both of us, a totally unexpected offering from network television;  and I found David Lynch’s approach to storytelling far more interesting in this medium than I had found it in his Hollywood films.  Even more impressive, however, was Babylon 5, which almost seemed to be calculated to rethink War and Peace, both the novel and the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, for the science fiction set.

These days just about every network has gotten into the act, and we saw much of the impact in choices for Emmy awards.  I suspect that there are many who will dismiss this as soap opera with a veneer for prime-time viewing;  but I think we are talking about something far deeper than veneer.  These days those who want superficiality get it from reality television.  Those who want the kind of narrative that draws you into a story rich in acts performed by agents, who have authentic purposes, which take place in well-conceived scenes and draw upon the instrumental assistances of agencies in a logical manner now have any number of outlets for “real drama” provided by just about every network.  Hollywood’s response to this hunger has been to ignore it in favor of more sophisticated special effects now enhanced with three-dimensionality.  Apparently Walter Benjamin’s despair that “the art of storytelling is coming to an end” was premature, even though he was well aware that even some of the best literature was a product of sophisticated serialization and that such serialization would have to find a new medium before recovering its powers!

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