Whether it’s award-winning series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey — TV-series are thriving in the Internet age. Their stories and characters occupy people from all over the world, feeding back into discussions on blog posts, forums and Social Media. The reason for their success lies not only in great writing and production — TV-series have become the most characteristic narrative medium of the 21st century.
TV-Series Without TV (consumption & production)
Although we still talk about television series, we tend to watch them everywhere, on mobile phones, tablets and gaming consoles — just not on television. Not everyone has a cable television subscription, but we all have Internet. Whether people pay a few dollars for a Netflix subscription to feed their binge-watching habit or pirate new seasons through BitTorrent before they come out, the television as a delivery mechanism for television series seems increasingly irrelevant.
The first season of House of Cards is maybe the best proof that television networks aren’t just unnecessary for the distribution of high quality TV-series, they aren’t even necessary for their production!
In some ways, it’s similar to the “Rise of the Novel” in the 18th century when literature suddenly became a huge market. It wasn’t necessary anymore to go to a theater to consume a good story, one could snuggle up with one of the thousands of new books that were produced every year. Stories (in their written form) had suddenly become mobile, resulting in increased public appreciation and an explosion of media coverage.
The Show Must Go On (continuity & serialization)
Compared to an average feature film, TV-series have an addictive quality. The story and characters live in the viewer’s head not just for an evening’s sitting but for many months or even years! Each episode solves some conflicts, only to throw up more, promising surprising new turns if only we “tune in next week”. The Internet has disrupted the mechanism of weekly releases, allowing for a completely new immersive experience: the viewing marathon, in which a year’s worth of weekly episodes are consumed over the course of one weekend.
Let’s look at the experience of reading a novel. It’s not a matter of delving into a story for one and a half hours, it can take many days, weeks or even months to finish a challenging book. On some days, a reader will make great progress, reading for many hours in one sitting, at other times there’s just room for a quick chapter here and there. In other words, it’s completely “on-demand”.
In that sense, the technological possibility of the marathon has made the process of consuming TV-series much more similar to the consumption of novels. It’s about immersion and personalization (whenever, wherever).
Interestingly, the written word has gone through a similar process. In the 17th century, despite the growth of movable type, the process of printing was still expensive, so books were released in serialized form:
[T]o reduce the price and expand the market, publishers produced large works in lower-cost installments called fascicles – wiki
When we speak about “serial literature” today, we often think about the 19th century with Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and many other works which first appeared in monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers. But whether it’s the fascicle which appeared before the “Rise of the Novel” or the Victorian serialized novel which rode its crest — at one point or another, the complete novel as we know it today began to replace an episodic reading experience with a more continuous one.
As a sidenote, it’s interesting that serial literature is experiencing a comeback of sorts in the ebook age, just like TV-series are thriving in the post-TV streaming era.
Salons & Coffeehouses (social & coverage)
When a new season of Mad Men (or any other hugely popular series) comes out, all major online news sources report it and the Social Media sphere is abuzz with hopes, expectations and spoiler alerts. Not even movies get that kind of media coverage anymore. And even if there isn’t a new season, there’s always someone somewhere watching an episode and tweeting or blogging about it. It’s an advertiser’s wet dream: constant coverage.
While new movies get less attention than TV-series, novels get even less. Once in a while there is a “Fifty Shades of Grey” which everyone talks about because of its novelty value, but in general there is no serious mass-interest in written stories, at least not in a public sense. This is not recent news. Already in the first half of the 20th century magazines and newspapers stopped printing periodical fiction as radio and television became the primary entertainment medium and periodic print media shifted towards news and information.
Whereas news coverage of TV-series is at an all-time high, novels don’t really have a platform anymore outside of close-knit exclusive circles. In a very broad sense, news coverage can be seen as just a natural extension of social activity: since everyone watches a particular series or reads a book, everyone talks about it. It’s both reflection of and cause for a cultural item’s popularity.
In the 17th and 18th century the literary salons of Paris shaped a whole culture. These salons, often held by authors themselves in their private home provided a vital forum for discussion and the creation of new works, just like the coffee houses of London. In the 18th and 19th century people began to form book clubs, not only to exchange opinions but also because books were expensive. Newspapers gave critical attention to new publications, libraries and bookstores enjoyed great popularity.
Today, the literary salon and the coffee house has been replaced by Social Media, and with the same vigor in which new books were once discussed, now people talk about the exploits of their favorite TV-series heroes on Twitter and Facebook.
Does all this mean that books are dead? Certainly not. Disruption doesn’t equal destruction. Is there no place for the narrative written word in the Internet age? No, in fact we’re experiencing a revival of reading and writing through the explosion of self-publishing. But perhaps — in the same way the novel was the perfect medium to reflect 17th-19th century life — the format of the TV-series simply serves best as a mirror for our current culture.
img: Some rights reserved by Lubs Mary. / chart: Olaf Simons, Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported