August 5, 2016 - The TV Activist, Pt. 2 - I'm Your Binge-PushermanAdmit it: When you were kids, it was the one thing you couldn't get that you dreamed of having more than you ever needed for the rest of your life.
To be able to buy out the toy store. To have your own basement video arcade. To be able to stay up till midnight, even on a school night. To have Richie Rich's pile of cash, when your allowance didn't go far enough. To have a fleet of sports cars instead of a bike. Or, like Vern in "Stand By Me", to be able to eat cherry-flavored Pez as the one food anyone ever needed.
And if Mom said that you could only have one or two Oreo cookies with your milk after school since dinner was at 6, you dreamed of the moment you could sit in the corner with the entire package and no milk. That meant adulthood, and that meant independence. No more of this "under the same roof" stuff.
When Netflix brought on its Instant digital-subscription service in 2010--inspiring Amazon to follow suit, and Hulu to Plus itself and realize no one was watching video on their desktop--we were introduced to a new independence: TV episodes you could select off the rack. No more commercials. Start and stop times by the remote that let you take bathroom breaks, and let you start over if you rushed back at 8:01. Why, it was even better than the Tivo.
Most of us had already been watching ad-free multi-episodes off of vintage or season DVD boxsets, but now to have the whole run of the series in front of us for the taking...Back then, Netflix was still connected with StarzPlay, and here I'd had those entire runs of Maverick and Have Gun Will Travel to choose from. Watching one half-hour a night for a week was now possible, or even two if I dared. Even if TVLand didn't show them anymore, the streaming services did, so there.
Now, I'm not that extreme a binge-watcher, when I look up reruns on the Big Three...Well, I'm just not. Attention-span, y'know, I like variety. I usually line up a half hour of this, and a bit of disk-movie of that, and by then I probably have to get a snack or hit the toilet, and forget what I was in the mood to watch next.
With more and more titles disappearing from Netflix in 2016, I'm more conscious of not gobbling up and finishing anything that I'm not sure will be replaced any time soon--There's still those two other Star Trek series and those last five seasons of Cheers left on my queue (never paid much attention to the Sam & Rebecca arc when it was on, so this'll be all new), and that's good enough of an emergency survival ration alongside the PBS documentaries and those in-between seasons of X-Files for the next few years in case nothing else new or good ever shows up for weeknight viewing. Waste not, want not.
But to the binge-watcher, wastefully gobbling an entire season like a 4th of July hot-dog eating contest is not only a manly test of endurance and dedication, but a proof of loyalty and enthusiasm as well. Look up the newest eagerly-awaited season or debut series on Netflix, check the reviews two or three days after it hits, and see how many reviews say "I just binge-watched the series, and it was great!" To the fan, the entire 13-episode series had to be experienced in two days. Not 13 weeks. DAYS. The entire season arc, from start to finish, had to be completed instantly, in its entirety, before it could be talked about.
Tell a binge-series fan that it might be bad, or wrong, or greedy or childish, and you will see them react as if you criticized their religion: No one would want to angrily defend their right to couch-potato their favorite TV series, but to criticize the idea of binge-watching was not just behind the times, it was a personal slight on their own modern connected lifestyle that freed them from their parents' generation--It was yet more persecution of the Poor Misunderstood Millennial by the old fogeys who had inflicted the damage they were escaping in the first place. As if it seemed to be attacking the VERY FOUNDATION of the Internet generation's brave new TV world of selective choices without commercials or airtimes. Suggest the old-school idea of watching one episode a week, and June Cleaver might just as well be back vacuuming the house in pearls while John Ritter tripped over the couch to laughtracks.
Now that the cookie-jar has been opened, that seems to be the main fallacy that most of us still haven't seem to have grasped in the new age of a la carte subscription-streaming viewing--In our entertainment viewing, we genuinely seem to have lost the ability to conceptualize the difference between having all of something available, and consuming all of something available. Or between being able to consume some of it or all of it.
Streaming television brought us freedom, but it's our fault that we still see only the child's idea of "freedom", not the adult's.
Marketers now recognize the trend, although they're not sure whether to parody it as mindless indulgence, or accept it as what the In Crowd does. One company that poked some fun at how much they benefitted from the trendy new personal compulsion to destroy one's sleep and social life was the obvious one: Visine Eye Drops.
The words have literally now become synonymous in our culture: "To watch" a series is now "To binge-watch" it, and vice versa. Television can be consumed in no other way...I mean, whaddya, nuts?
If a new season brings three or four new "edgy" Original Programming series to Amazon and Netflix, the hype machine is ready to give us the word. If it's already been on the air and escaped our notice, it'll be--and I quote--"The hit show you SHOULD be making your next binge-watch!" Because, like the addict, after the last rush is gone, there must always be The Next.
Now, over the years of old-school network viewing, I've been told many presumptuous and personally-intruding things by network publicists, announcers and commercials about what they'd like me to do in regards to my viewing habits: I've been told to "don't miss" a show and "join them later" for it, I've been told to "not touch that dial" in order to watch the next show, a while ago I was told to "NB-See Us this fall", and in the occasional rerun, I've even been told to "tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel". And I've taken it all in the spirit of good hyperbolic fun.
But I can't think of a time any publicist has ever actually crossed the line and judgmentally told me how I SHOULD be managing my time and living my viewing lifestyle, for their benefit more than mine. And on no other appeal than that everyone else was doing it. But then, I was an adult, you see, without my parents, and if all my friends jumped off the roof, I was now free to do so, too.
I challenge the reader to name one single product that has ever actually seriously advertised or endorsed overdosing on the product to unrealistic extremes--The makers of sleeping pills certainly don't. The makers of Lay's potato chips were only joking when they bet us we couldn't eat just one. The newest variety of Snickers candy-bar isn't advertised as "The one bar you HAVE to gorge yourself on twelve of!" and even Budweiser beer disclaimers us to "Drink responsibly", knowing that every fraternity college student will gladly do so.
There are two theories for why "You should" has now become "You must", or at least "Well, duh, you already do, don't you?" in the media.
- One, is the same theory that makes studios believe we're so in love with our cellphones, we'll watch all our movies there, and so in love with social media, we'll rush to tell all our friends about it, and throw the last baby out if the bathwater happens to be a bit soiled: They don't really have a clue.
Entertainment executives and marketers aren't really what you would call technologically current: They may play with a few apps on their Android smartphones, and feel they're in touch with the trendy young anonymous public, but they can't quite put it into normal social context about WHY the public does it. All they see is that something happened to create a Trend while they were unawares that took off like wildfire, and they don't want to be burned--Since they're not sufficiently qualified to explain the trend, and they're too outnumbered to outwit it, they must be, like the Simpsons quote, "ready to welcome their New Overlords".
If the execs see that the public has tossed over the free networks for the new world of subscription binge-watching, well, heck, THEY love it too! C'mon, fellow trend-setting kids, let's all sit around and...binge-watch something on Hulu! It's the new trend that will put everyone else out of business, so you won't catch us being behind!--Uh, will you? And then we can discuss it with all our friends on Facebook, and get them to join our Saturday-night binge-watching parties, so we can demographically measure how many there are of you...Er, us!
And nothing kills a trend faster than the public trying to calm down the sudden forcible and overly-friendly mainstream invasion of what had once been their own private indulgence, and reality-check them "Hey, it's okay--We don't really love it that much, 'kay?"
- The other, is the main force that drives most movie and TV entertainment in the 21st century: It works out to the studio/network's corporate advantage as well.
If you still watch broadcast TV--and that's an understandable "if"--you may notice we've lost a few things since the 90's. We've lost opening theme songs, as shows now open with a title logo and credits over the opening dialogue. We've lost end themes, as shows now push scrolling names silently to the side or bottom while they air the promo ads that used to appear between shows. Oh, and that's the other thing, we've lost any commercial break between the end of one program and the beginning of another.
The idea was to remove anything that would even distract us to change the channel, before the next show would hook us like an elusive rainbow trout. Because broadcast TV has sponsors, and sponsors need viewers--Network needs viewers watching, and they need viewers hooked. Network TV was grooming us for binge-watching ten years before such a thing had been invented or even imagined.
Cable networks were already imagining it, as they also found that ratings-boosted "blocks" of their most house-marketable shows, by airing two or three episodes of Duck Dynasty or Deadliest Catch back-to-back to appeal to their largest section of franchise fans, also ate up big convenient chunks of the daily schedule that might have otherwise had to be filled by expensive movies or other licensed shows. Look over most cable TV listings today, like TVLand, TLC or USA Network, and you'll see an average channel's day consist of six different cult-hit series--Air three popular episodes in a row, and it frees up your schedule from that nasty problem of having to make any OTHER shows.
Netflix, in 2010, thought it had a clever way to make viewers watch their TV-episode reruns--Fans complained about fast-forwarding through every opening-credits, so the service added a feature that would "squash" the end-credits TV style, while it showed a ten-second countdown that would automatically jump past the credits and straight into the action of the next episode, without having to click a button. And so a habit was born: One episode stuffed onto your plate immediately after the last, and only ten seconds to refuse the waiter.
That's how the trend first started, folks, in case you ever wondered: Not fandom stunts. Not compelling storylines. Not the new freedom of selectable viewing. Just people too in love with a new technological format, and too lazy to click one darned button.
But hey, if we're all having fun, it can't hurt anybody, right? Well, that would depend on who or what you see as taking most of the damage.
Broadcast and cable networks no longer make series to satisfy their audience, to make them feel happy or resolved at the end credits--They now seek to do the very dictionary opposite: They set out to create serial episodes with teasing, unresolved stories that don't make the viewer feel resolved, but tantalized to want the next episode, and the next after that. Each episode is not a story, but only a chapter in a story leading for months up to "The shocking season finale!"...Which, of course, will be no finale, but the "shock" will be some unexpected jumped-shark twist--such as revealing a good character to be a bad one, or killing off various members of the cast like stray dogs at a shelter--which will entice the viewer into waiting six months for the next season, and demand the show escape cancellation by the network heads. Other shows, like AMC's American Horror Story, having completed their closed season-story arc, have to start over from scratch with a completely new story, since there was nothing to tantalize that renewed-option contract with. And most viewers, of course, must punish themselves and wait the year building themselves to that fever pitch, especially if, with Netflix or Amazon-original series, they consumed the previous season in one gulp, faster than the producers could film new ones.
The new glut of serial-arcs believes it's following the ground broken by the linked storylines of "24"'s season-long cases, although the public had already been hooked on the Laura Palmer murder on "Twin Peaks" eleven years earlier...And even that believed it was parodying the small-town soap-opera world of Peyton Place. Even our 70's prime-time soap opera addiction made a brief comeback when a TNT revival of "Dallas" in 2012 brought JR Ewing back to the new world where liking grim, humorless, amoral ensemble serials was acceptable again. (And who apparently survived his ambiguous gunfight with his "angel" at the end of the 70's series.)
A hundred and seventy-five years ago, Charles Dickens wrote his novels as serials, and fans reportedly gathered at the docks waiting for the last chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop, shouting out "Did Little Nell survive?"...Change that to Jon Snow from "Game of Thrones", and you have the average TV-fandom magazine article today. Only it's not always the public writing it.
As we move into the fall season, some network execs, such as at ABC and TNT have expressed their idea to move back to "closed-ended" episodes, saying that the current crop of open-ended serials have saturated the market, made series hard to distinguish themselves, and left viewers...unsatisfied.
But for the most part, the networks have now discovered you have a weakness, and that you can be exploited by it, even if you have to willingly destroy body and soul to pursue satisfaction for it. If you can, there is a word for what that makes you: An "addict".
And if their plan is to profit by it to keep their industry alive, that brings up a very obvious word for what that makes them.