by John Voyles
Ten years ago, YouTube was in it's infancy, video clips were still rare online, and Netflix was a rather little-known service for selecting and renting DVD discs. Today the name 'Netflix' is a brand synoymous with streaming video content online, and the face of a market that has already been carved up by three big names, with Hulu a strong second place, and Amazon struggling to catch up.
Our viewing habits have changed as well with the emerging practice of 'binge watching' - that is, watching several episodes of a show in one sitting. The exact definition varies - some may suggest watching two episodes is a binge, while for others, you need to clock in a good few hours to graduate. Seventy percent of Americans now binge-watch, according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte.
Serialized storytelling has found new relevance, with binge watching and streaming programs opening the doors for viewers to appreciate longer plots and character development. Programs like Marvel's "AKA Jessica Jones" can push the envelope in ways broadcast television simply can't allow. Quality can override quantity, with some streaming exclusives only having 6-8 episodes.
With the convenience of being able to stream any program we may want at any time from the comfort our homes, often for much fairer flat monthly rates than those the monopolized cable market offers, it's natural that we as consumers don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Why ruin a good thing?
We should recognize, first and foremost, the streaming industry has already been carved out by three large competitors, with Netflix having maintained a monopoly until only recently. Amazon's streaming market is still struggling to take flight and only succeeding primarily with those who already have Amazon Prime accounts. Hulu, meanwhile, is owned by stake holders Time Warner, Disney, 21st Century Fox and Comcast, and has a partnership with Viacom - all five of the biggest media companies.
The rise of streaming sites has not removed control of content by providers - it has only shifted it. Content providers can remove shows as contracts allow, limiting access particularly for shows without home video releases, and de-incentivize the availability of free content. South Park Studios once offered every episode of "South Park" for free on their website, but in 2014, cut a deal to move all but a rotating handful of episodes behind a Hulu paywall, to the outcry of fans. Ads still interrupt programming anywhere.
Access to programs on demand allows programs that did not flourish on television a chance at new viewership - "Breaking Bad" wasn't a true ratings success until Netflix finally won it critical acclaim and widespread popularity. The ability to pick and choose can undermine high-concept programming though, and shows that became iconic via syndicated reruns on local stations, like "Star Trek", lose that extra oppurtunity in the digital age.
While a rise in serialization befits some programming well, it runs risks to the long-term value of programming. A study by Disney found that after watching a piece of dramatic television, many viewers would skip repeats until the storyline changed, while a piece of comedic television could succeed in repeats due to viewers watching the jokes again. On the other hand, despite finding critical success and acclaim with newly serialzied storylines, "South Park"'s ratings have declined since it adopted the model.
For years, television programs often advocated 'standalone' episodes with self-contained storylines, so every episode could be an entry point for new and uninformed viewers. You could never know what order episodes may air in, both in first run and in syndication, so continuity could often create confusion. Shows could end unexpectedly and rob stories of conclusions. Until the eighties, series finales were often anothe run-of-the-mill episode.
Binge-watching can radically change the experience of a program, with the 'Next Episode' always being a click away. Cliffhangers that once kept viewers biting their nails around the world, now are resolved in a moment. The value of an individual episode radically shifts between the single new episode in a week and one of a dozen episodes streamed in an evening. In some cases, viewers simply skip an airing season and then binge when it is completed.
While the value of a season has gone up, the value of the individual episode has decreased signfiicantly. While historically, television episodes have been structured with their own beginning, middle, and end, the emphasis on binging and serialization has changed the role of an 'episode' as that to a chapter in a book. The episode's role is reduced to convincing you to watch the next episode, and so forth, versus having it's own structure. Episodes that don't contribute to a larger ongoing storyline are 'filler' and percieved as useless.
In the past, 'filler' episodes, often low-budget, were intended to act as character development pieces or comic relief while money was saved for bigger, dramatic episodes. Today, total episodes dwindle as budgets increase, making 'filler' episodes far more controversial. Even comedic programs with ongoing storylines, like Disney's "Gravity Falls" or Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe", are sometimes given lukewarm reception for episodes that focus on jokes over mythology.
It is worth noting that an over-emphasis on dramatic storytelling can sometimes lead to dramatic scenes being set up for superficial reasons, or even for shock value, such as forcing contrived love triangles or making characters betray each other, sometimes for little reason. "Game of Thrones" controversially once changed a consensexual sex scene from one of the original novels into a rape scene, a move many viewers felt made no dramatic sense.
The nature of television is already changing due to streaming - Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe", a principally comedic program with ongoing dramatic storylines, is almost always aired with several episodes in a single week, called 'Steven Bombs'. By airing a new episode each day, viewers have more incentive to tune in live, while also simulating the 'binge-watching' experience by airing them close together. Longer periods then pass without episodes airing until the next 'Bomb'.
Despite my criticism, none of this means streaming is a bad thing - a key aspect of thinking critically is being able to look critically at things you care about. The benefits and advantages of streaming content digitally are strong and there is media I'd have never had the pleasure of seeing without being able to stream it - but it's important to recognize that streaming is a system that is presenting new challenges and creating new changes, and some of them may not be wholly good.