Before the convenience of catch up TV, +1 channels, digital recording and 24/7 online box sets, TV was tied to a strict schedule. This schedule was the basis for episodic series, where viewers would have to tune in at a set time on a certain day to see the latest episode of their favourite show. Because of this drawn-out, rigid way of broadcasting episodes, producers would stick to storylines that would be wrapped up within the shows timeslot. With a non-linear, single episode storyline viewers could miss an episode and it wouldn’t really matter; their favourite characters would be back next week, often unaffected by what happened previously.
Episodes of Doctor Who are an excellent example of this format. The doctor usually encounters a ‘monster of the week’, follows a moderately repetitive storyline then manages to save the day in the last 5 minutes of the show, ready for next week’s completely different and unrelated adventure. Apart from recurring characters such as Davros and the Daleks, the show is famous for using practical effects and often comedic plots to the keep episodes fresh and exciting.
Some so called ‘bottle episodes’ also follow this format, where complex sequences or multiple settings are substituted for a single setting and a focus on character interaction over action. Although usually done to divert budget to more important episodes, this is also a way of buying time by creating a ‘one off’ episode that usually ties itself up at the end.
This traditional episodic format has become the subject of derision, as episodes can become repetitive, lack character development or rely on a gimmick to keep viewers interested and ensure that the storyline sticks to a single episode. In the Futurama episode ‘When Aliens Attack’, Fry mentions that just like on TV, ‘everything turns out alright in the end’ (also known as the ‘reset button technique’), but naturally the complete opposite happens, reinforced by a shot of New New York in ruins. Of course, everything is back to normal in the next episode.
The 90’s were when traditional episodic TV shows really began to develop into the multi-season epics that we see today. One of the most popular serials of all time, the X-files, maintained the episodic ‘monster / alien / entity of the week’ format but had an underlying story which unravelled as the season progressed. By the end of the decade, shows like the Sopranos and 24 were starting to dabble with story arcs that would take place over multiple episodes, but would still have the ‘bottle episodes’ and one off weekly storylines. There are various reasons why the episodic format is preferred by producers. It allows viewers to dip in and out of shows (think ‘Friends’). It also keeps costs low if the same sets are used or episodes are filmed in blocks. The running order can also be switched around if a script needs to be changed or isn’t quite ready.
With the introduction of on demand TV and online streaming, viewers now have full control of how, when and where they watch TV. With enough popcorn and red bull, it’s possible to watch all 121 episodes of Lost in one, lonely and frankly dangerous sitting.
Ultra complex shows with budgets to rival Hollywood blockbusters are now the norm. HBO’s Westworld is clocking in at almost $10million an episode and wouldn’t make any sense if you decided to watch episode 5 all of a sudden, but still this superdrama pulls in huge figures every week and even more in online views. People will often not watch the show when it is first aired, but will wait for a rainy day and watch all 10 episodes in one go. Netflix has realised this and is now releasing seasons with all episode available at once. This phenomenon of ‘binge watching’ means there are no more excuses for not being up to date because you missed this week’s episode or didn’t have time to watch it.
While binge watching is now possible on a multitude of channels, Netflix is certainly the daddy! The entire way it’s designed is to keep you watching, with the show’s “are you still watching” feature being parodied online as judging its audience. While Netflix offers up a wide variety of different shows, it geo blocks some of its shows, either due to copyright issue, or to match local markets. As different markets pay the same amount, it can seem a little strange, or even frustrating that you can’t get the same content in the UK that you can in the USA. This can also affect the amount of seasons that are available for a show, which can make binging impossible.
While there’s no option in Netflix at the moment to either have the UK or the US version of the service, and obviously moving to a new country is not practical, there are ways that you can gain access to a larger Netflix account. A virtual private network hides your IP, running it through a proxy server. As it’s possible to choose the country that the proxy server is run in, you can choose what Netflix that you want, with the USA being a natural choice. Netflix do try to halt this activity wherever possible though. Similar to ad-blockers, new VPNs will spring up as the old ones are found to no longer work. As the demand grows for more shows to be unblocked, it’s possible that Netflix will work harder at getting around the legal limitations and copyright issues, making all traffic visible to all.
As VPNs continue to open up global audiences, it further promotes those global shows and truly focusses attention. The success of shows like House of Cards, Stranger Things and other shows, boosted by a new global audience further highlight the increased demand for shows of this quality, and show to producers that it’s important to take a risk on those kinds of shows.
Complex TV shows with season long storylines will only continue to become more popular as we seek better character development, more action and adventure and further invested emotion. This unprecedented popularity is compounded by ease of access and the internet is and will continue to be the box set junkie that satiates the population’s TV addiction.