the economic paradox of quality television

Old style network television was based on the following economic model. Make a bunch of stand alone episodes and advertisers pay for it. If you get lucky, you get to syndicate the show and future advertisers can pay for it again. The aesthetic trick is to make sure that each episode is relatively self-contained so that in the short term, new viewers can easily pick up. If you can’t just turn it on and get it, it will be hard to syndicate.

The big evolution in modern television is arc story telling. Rather than have stand alone tales, television episodes form one long narrative. The first show to completely do this and hit it big was the Soprano’s in the early 2000s. But you could also see arc story telling in earlier science fiction, like Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5. Now, the default mode for television on streaming platforms is the story arc.

This presents a pretty serious economic problem. Arc stories are really powerful in ways that old procedurals and sit coms are not but they undermine the economic logic of television. Short term, it is hard to build an audience unless they buy in early. For most shows, it is just hard to pick up a show in season 3 and get it. Long term, it’s horrible. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it will be very hard for future viewers to start in season 6 and really get the most out of it. In contrast, the all time great sit com show, Friends, still keeps making new fans every single day. It is so “stand alone” that young people think it’s about them – in 2020!

So this leads to some very perverse dynamics in the modern entertainment industry – high quality shows are very likely to get cancelled. Netflix is notorious for this. If you can’t get an audience by season 2, you get chopped. And other streaming services aren’t much different. This has resulted in some very daring shows – like Sense8 on Netflix – getting chopped very early and leaving people hanging. And I can’t blame network executives. It’s expensive and if you can’t get viewers, you have a problem.

If you believe this analysis, then we may see a shift back from “prestige” arc story to traditional stand alone story telling. Instead of betting on the next Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, streamers may try to mimic network television and go for the next Monk or Friends – shows that are very easy to replay in the future.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2020 at 12:17 am

Posted in uncategorized

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