In my recent thinking about TV I have been looking forward to the upcoming new seasons of my favorite shows (mostly US dramas, they will only be starting the new seasons in the UK in Jan/Feb). While people that know me will be the first to say that I have eclectic tastes (or no taste at times) the shows I enjoy mostly do tend to be the big hits; Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 24 etc, so these are the shows I have been thinking about.
I began wondering why these show are hits? What makes a hit in this age? What do these shows, if anything, have in common? Granted that hits will differ, and be created, in part because of the audience that they are aimed at, but is there something else that we can see. I came up with one thing that many of the current (in the last 5 years) hit shows have in common. They break the previously held TV conventions of time.
Until these recent changes most television shows held to the following formula;
Season -> Season = ~1 year
Show -> Show = ~1 week
Show -> Show = ~1 week
While flexibility was enjoyed, especially in season breaks where cliff hangers would bring people back for more the next season, the rule mostly held. A season in the real world was a year in telly world. Look back to Star Trek (TNG, DS9, Voyager etc), e.r., Buffy, NYPD Blue etc. These shows followed the natural procession of time. A useful by-product of this was the ability to time seasonal episodes, for example the once ubiquitous Christmas show.
The modern hits that we are now watching tend to forgo such a strict chronological strategy. Instead they see telly time as something much more pliable which is giving them different ways of telling stories. I suppose that it is slightly ironic that the genres this is most experienced in are action/sci-fi, ironic because this change allows for far more character study something not traditionally associated to these genres (although that's a very debatable point).
Let's look at the shows where this is most obvious;
The show that started it all, the one that once successful allowed many more shows to break the rules (or imitate depending on your perspective). The main structure of the show is the obvious break with convention, each show representing 1 hour in a single day in Jack Bauer's life, but more interesting is the variable gap between seasons. There was much debate around what would happen at the start of season 2, would it be the next day, week, month or year? In fact 18 months had past, 3 years in the next season break, then 18 months again, 18 months and now 20 months.
These large gaps between seasons have been essential to the continued success of the show, they allow the character's lives to move on, to give enough new back-story, that the audience is unaware, of that can be filtered in throughout the next season.
A story of the survivors of a plane crash on a deserted island, only 73 days of telly time had past by the time the show had reached episode 6 of season 3! Standard rules of chronology have also been thrown out of the window by each episode showing both the story on the island in current time and also flashbacks to a specific characters back story. These flashbacks move around the time-line of the characters lives, sometimes never giving a definitive point in time as a reference.
By spreading out the show chronology and the massive use of flashbacks the writers have been able to delve in-depth into all of their characters which provides one of the main draws to the show for the audience. This structure is also a nice way of confusing the viewer, drawing them into the show and getting around the problem of Hurley's lack of weight loss.
Like Lost, but without the flashbacks, Battlestar Galactica spent the miniseries beginning and first two seasons focused in on the attempted destruction of mankind and the immediate aftermath, only reaching 9 months of story time before the end of season 2. Then jumping a year into the future this show has proved that it knows how to leverage the time-line where appropriate. No where is this performed more wonderfully than the opening to season 1, "33", where you almost feel the crew's exhaustion.
One of the newest shows on the block (no pun intended, honestly) Prison Break's first season covers only 2 months of show time, season 2 starting only 8 hours later. Again this break with convention, or by now adherence to the new convention, allows the show to delve deeper into the characters and show situations in more detail. In Prison Break the format, because the show moves on quite slowly, adds to the feeling of incarceration thus drawing the viewer into the lives the characters even further.
So why has this shift occurred? It became more prevalent in the movies long before 24 first aired, for example Pulp Fiction, Memento, Ground Hog Day. These films amongst others showed that non-linear story telling could open doors for writers that were not there before, freeing them from constraints that may have been placed on them using more traditional story telling techniques. More importantly these films showed that audiences would follow and appreciate these stories.
This lack of convention for time is not required for a show to be successful, many hit shows still follow the show=week, season=year format. In fact for some shows it is essential. The West Wing would not have been anywhere near as compelling if it had not followed a term and a half of one president in almost real-time. School/college related shows almost religiously follow this format (Buffy, Dawson's Creek, Smallville, Veronica Mars), this is an output of the audience they are targeting who's lives are currently following the same format.
Does changing the conventions of time in TV shows draw the viewer into the show more than the previously thought season=year, show=week format would? If anything, when a show is broadcast on a week by week basis such a change could frustrate viewers more than anything else. So what has changed? DVD.
More and more people are experiencing TV shows only on DVD, and if they are watching them on TV first they have in the back of their mind the decision over whether or not they will be buying it on DVD later. A compressed time-line is something that DVD viewers appreciate, and it does certainly draw people in on such a format.
Just a few weeks ago my friends and I completed our 5th annual 24x24, watching a whole season of 24 in real-time. Out of the 5 of us I was the only person to have seen the show on TV. While this extreme experience may be in the minority, watching whole seasons, or shows, for the first time on DVD certainly is not. Viewing habits are changing and most importantly people are hungry to experience shows on their own terms.
Is this all an example of the format of the times dictating the structure of the shows? If so what could we expect from the formats of the future?