Saturday, September 08, 2007

Providing entertainment

I was recently watching TV shows, for whatever it's worth, Heroes and Dexter, and thinking that while movies seems to have fallen to a lower median quality, television series seem to have risen to a higher median quality. Some of that is probably perception, on my part, and I have little interest in answering or deciding how much.

Somewhere in there it struck me a story my father told me. Frankly, I'd bet it comes out of some inspirational book for business types, and I'm sure most of it would make me roll my eyes. This always seems to apply well to many things. The suggestion is that railroads lost their hold on the shipping industry at one point because they were thinking of themselves as being in the industry of moving things on trains rather than simply moving things.

In movies, it has taken some time for there to be a perception that they are in the business of providing dramatic picture stories rather than projected celluloid images. They still seem fairly determined to not learn core lesson and instead learn it with each new technology or change that comes along.

The small good news is, they are still managing to stay ahead of the music industry. Mind you, being behind the music industry in terms of understanding your relationship with your customers is nearly impossible. For what it's worth, I highly recommend Dear Rick Rubin (or Somebody): Why Not Surf the "Velocity of Music?" by RJ Eskow for some better understanding of what the music industry should see as their goals.

I remember about 15 years ago, I had an idea for a Cyberpunk movie that continued to snowball in my head into a larger and larger story. I remember at that time thinking how amazing it would be to be able to tell it over the course of a couple of years of television. It wasn't a revolutionary idea at the time exactly, but it was, in the US, nearly an impossible one. And while networks are still largely enslaved to the notion that more seasons is more money and will allow or force nearly anything to go on for as long as it continues to put up dollars, there is a growing market of cable networks and syndicates that understand the potential... in the long run, much, much greater potential, for things that tell a story and get out while viewers are still enthralled, as Jim Emerson says in his Letter to Hollywood, "Whatever happened to the showbiz tradition of leaving 'em wanting more?"

Theoretically, with TV, DVDs, theatrical film, the Internet and whoever knows what else, the possibilities for dramatic picture stories is nearly endless. The arbitrary demands of length, number of segment, equality of segments and the like could come to an end... or at least have the envelope pushed a bit around the edges. It'll require some imagination, however.

Certainly the industry will be reluctant as usual, and so will audiences... at first... but everyone could be glad to have come for the ride, if and when someone ever makes it happen.

2 comments:

Marty McKee said...

Although it's a popular sentiment, I don't agree that we're in any better an era for television as any other. For one thing, in terms of variety, today's fare is extremely lacking. Almost every hour show on the broadcast networks is about cops, lawyers or doctors. Where are the cowboys, spies, private eyes, reporters, stewardesses, adventurers, teachers? Where are the soaps? Where are the family dramas? Where are the adult dramas? Most of all, where are the shows that are actually about something?

I think there are a lot of good shows on right now, but is there any sitcom as good as, say, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or ALL IN THE FAMILY or an action/adventure better than MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or THE ROCKFORD FILES or a drama as good as LOU GRANT? I'm talking about broadcast TV, where the playing field is level, not cable.

Neil Sarver said...

Broadcast TV? Absolutely not, and I don't see much possibility that it will improve. Various cable stations are exactly what create that impression.

I was just watching "Heroes" last week, and generally enjoying it, but I couldn't help being frustrated by how many of the side characters are stock and how on-the-nose much of the dramatic elements are.

Not to mention, broadcast is still firmly committed to continuing production of every successful series until all semblance of quality has faded away. That is, I think, my biggest issue with TV series frankly...

Somewhere I see the possibilities for serialized storytelling expanding. I don't know how many will take notice or advantage. Certainly nothing has changed on the Networks, where things are, if anything, a bit worse, with little interest in nurturing things that aren't instant hits or, as you say, showing series outside a small group of proven subjects.

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