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February 2019

Current Issue: February 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
 
 
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The Revolution will be Televised

1 February 2019

Conor Purcell examines how a once-humble medium has been utterly transformed

Switch on the new Netflix show Maniac and you may be surprised by all the things that you are no longer surprised by. One: The show features two bona fide Hollywood stars, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. Two: It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, probably the hottest director around (he directed Jane Eyre and will take the helm of the next James Bond, among others). Three: It’s awe-inspiringly ambitious in its scope; a narrative-twisting, time-shifting visual feast. There was a time when any one of those things would have been startling on the small screen – but all three?

Nowadays the stream of talent moving between small and silver screens has turned into a flood. What was once Hollywood’s greatest strength – the fact that you could escape the world for two hours – has been challenged by the multi-episodic nature of television, which allows character development so nuanced that whole essays centre around a character’s change in hairstyle (Stranger Things’ protagonist, Eleven). It wasn’t always this way, of course.

In the days before cable, TV was that thing that was on between the ad breaks. Shows were designed in order to facilitate the advertisers that paid the bills – one of the reasons why US network shows still have ad breaks every fifteen minutes.

The content was as straitjacketed as the format. Watch American TV in the 1960s and you won’t see any mention of the counterculture, the anti-Vietnam riots, the growing disillusionment with the American way of life. The most popular shows of the decade were The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show and Bonanza.

Of course these shows got huge viewing figures; if something like The Wire was beamed into American homes in 1965, there would have been a collective meltdown. In those halcyon days, distributors distributed and content creators created. Now, a seismic change has resulted in these focused job functions becoming increasingly blurred, resulting in more choice for the consumer and an opening up of the creative possibilities of what television can be. The fact that Netflix relies on subscribers rather than advertisers for its revenue has resulted in what some see as more daring choices. Moreover, the fact that the platform needs to come up with new content almost every week to satisfy the binge-watching habits of its viewers has led to increasingly creative content.

To understand why television hasimproved so much, we must go back to 1972. Television at that time was dominated by the ‘Big Three’: the three network TV companies (ABC, NBC, CBS) that decided what was broadcast and raked in huge revenues while doing so.

That year, a new channel emerged: HBO. This was the first TV station that relied on an underground cable to transmit its content, rather than the microwave antennas which were then the mainstay. Cable TV fundamentally changed the model that had served advertisers for decades. Suddenly the revenue came from the viewers, rather than the advertisers. This meant, theoretically at least, that cable TV could pander to the audience rather than advertisers. HBO’s audience kept growing: 600,000 households by 1977, and 12 million by 1983. That success was built on films rather than original programming, but it showed that people would pay for high quality content. As the subscriber numbers grew the channel put more money into its own programming, and was rewarded in 1999 when The Sopranos became the first cable show to be nominated for Best Drama Series.

What HBO did was to keep pushing boundaries. Ignoring cookie cutter comedies like Two And A Half Men in favour of edgier fare such as High Maintenance, an offbeat comedy plucked from Vimeo, it spends money instead on the cast, crew and writing. Two series where this is evident are True Detective and Game of Thrones – both hugely expensive to produce (the latter costing around US$10 million per episode), but are repaid with massive viewing figures: more than 30 million people watched each episode of season seven, comfortably breaking the channel’s record viewing figures. To put this in perspective, HBO’s revenue rose 7 per cent to $6.3 billion last year, partly due to the channel’s ability to navigate the new post-Netflix waters. Netflix, in comparison, earned $11.6 billion last year, a number that underlines their utter dominance of the streaming market. CBS, one of the ‘big three’ networks made slightly more than $13 billion, which illustrates how quickly Netflix has grown.

Back in 1983, three Hollywood film studios, paranoid at HBO’s growing audience, set up Showtime and The Movie Channel in order to compete. A plethora of similar cable movie channels emerged in the following years, most of them awful. Then in 1997 came Netflix, set up by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph, initially as a DVD rental company. Hastings came up with idea after being forced to pay a $40 late fee on his Apollo 13 rental. They pivoted to a streaming company ten years later, by which stage they had also started producing their own content.

Netflix’s first big gamble came in 2011, when it outbid HBO and AMC to buy House of Cards. The show ended up winning Emmys and Golden Globes and more importantly shifted the perception of Netflix from a streaming service to a content creator. The original hits kept coming: Orange Is The New Black, Stranger Things and Making a Murderer. Last year Netflix won more Emmy nominations than HBO for the first time, and it’s a trend that looks set to continue, with 85 per cent of the company’s $8 billion war chest set to be spent on new shows.

While Netflix changed how we view TV, it is also hastening the demise of cable. Bundled cable TV subscriptions are falling at an alarming rate, and although the cable TV companies are delaying the inevitable by raising the prices for the remaining customers, there’s only so long they can do that for. “You’ve got high prices, big bundles, and broadband,” says Warren Schlichting, president of Sling TV, which has more than two million people paying for an online service that starts at $25 and offers 30 channels. “At some stage, the consumer is going to revolt.”

Right now, it’s the studios that are revolting, with each of them working on their own streaming services, no longer comfortable with selling all of their content to Netflix. Disney, which recently bought another maker of TV shows and films, Fox, is holding onto its content ahead of the launch of its own streaming service. And networks such as HBO, CBS, Showtime, and Starz have also launched their own subscription services.

“To hedge this, Netflix has to look overseas,” says Tony Gunnarsson, a streaming video analyst at Ovum, a data and analysis company. “Growth rates in the US are going to drop into single digits very soon, probably in the next two years. Internationally, that’s quite different.”

Netflix is set to create 100 original foreign-language TV shows and movies in the next two years, illustrating how seriously the global market is to the company’s expansion plans. “Five to six per cent of the world’s population is in the US and UK. But what per cent of TV is coming out of Hollywood?” says Erik Barmack, Netflix’s Vice President of International Originals. “It can’t be the case that somehow Americans are that much better at telling stories than the rest of the world. It has to be a function of how linear TV is distributed and where the power centre was,” he says.

“That’s one concept. A second is that over half of our subscribers are now international. We know we need to find the best storytellers in the world wherever they are.”

That search will become increasingly important, says Gunnarson, as the company’s market shrinks in the West. “Netflix today is the DVD of yesteryear,” he said. “Netflix will even start shedding subscribers by the early to middle 2020s as more and more TV viewers turn to subscription-based linear streaming video.” That seems to be the lot of the broadcasting innovators: disrupt, dominate and then, finally, be usurped by a new player. Who or what will emerge to dethrone Netflix remains to be seen. What we do know is that change means the same for the viewer now as it did back in 1972: cheaper prices and more choice. And that’s a happy ending whichever way you look at it.

The TV shows that changed television

Hill Street Blues
(1981-1987)
In an era when every other TV show’s narrative was neatly wrapped up after each episode, Hill Street Blues pioneered the use of multi-episode stories and character arcs. The characters were layered; more, well, human and the stories of the cops that plied their trade at New York’s Hill Street station were always nuanced. Although never a commercial success (it became the lowest rated show ever renewed for a second year), it won eight Emmys in its first year.

The West Wing
(1999-2006)
You could argue that the concept of binge viewing only arrived with The West Wing. Created by Aaron Sorkin, the series debuted in 1999, pre-streaming, but just in time for the DVD boom. Although the show did well in its first year, it was its first Emmy win that saw its audience jump from nine to 17 million per episode. All those people had to play catch up, and it was to the box set they turned.

The Sopranos
(1999-2007)
Where do you start with The Sopranos? The creator, David Chase’s masterstroke was firstly to create such a rich, deep, set of characters, and secondly, to cast them the way he did. Forgetting the stereotypes, these characters had a depth and pathos previously unseen in Italian-American characters.

The Wire
(2002-2008)
David Simon’s weaving, layered dollop of Baltimore social history is routinely regarded as the pinnacle of television. Take a group of disaffected Baltimore cops, a rag-bag of criminals, politicians and lawyers and you get a clear-eyed view of the many issues inherent in modern American society. Simon’s genius was to ensure that this never became moralistic and was always entertaining.

Breaking Bad
(2008-2013)
Breaking Bad brought a new level of visual competence to television and was the first show that really ushered in the streaming era. It put Netflix on the map and established Vince Gilligan as one of the great writers of the medium. Focusing on a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, after discovering he has cancer, starts making meth with a former student to pay the healthcare bills. Explosive, compelling, and addictive.

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