Storytelling technologies

13May07

First, go read David Bordwell’s mini-essay on DVDs and cinema storytelling – I’ll wait here.

As he frequently does, Bordwell writes engagingly about things that you think you’ve already thought of, but he walks through the issue more clearly and comprehensively than anyone else, and by the end, what you thought you knew has to be revised. He lays out seven “speculations” or hypotheses about how the rise of the DVD impacts how filmmakers construct narratives. The one that I find most provocative is the last: “We can’t easily draw conclusions about how films are constructed on the basis of how they’re presented and consumed. Changes in viewing practices don’t automatically entail changes in storytelling.” I agree, but want to mull it through for the case of television – and like the last time I wrote in response to a Bordwell blog, it’s going to take awhile…

Certainly, Bordwell’s claim is correct that technological and consumption changes do not automatically cause anything – transformations in creative practices (especially in the highly industrialized and collaborative forms of cinema and television) are nearly always tied to a wide range of stimuli and underlying pressures. He argues that the rise of the DVD has enabled films to be more rewatchable, which itself can trigger greater complexity of form or deepening of classical paradigms, but there are no simplistic results of the shift. For television, I think the effects are a bit more regularized and pronounced. (1)

In film, the biggest transformation was arguably the rise of home video in the 1980s, making it viable for the majority of viewers to rewatch a film – previously films might only be seen again by elite consumers (Hollywood insiders, academics) or randomly at the whim of television schedules or repertory theaters. People growing up in America before home video can generally remember how the annual TV airing of The Wizard of Oz was an event, an idea that seems pretty ludicrous today. DVD allows for more widespread effects of this general home video mode – people buy & rent movies to watch, rewatch, and own as cultural objects like books or records.

Now a detour through TV history: television, since the mid-1950s, has offered built-in repeat viewings via reruns. Of course, reruns were only likely for some genres and industrial formations – common for primetime fiction or kids programs, rare for news, soap operas, game shows, sports, etc. – and would only be realized for a series that achieved a certain degree of success (typically 100 episodes). But for most of its history, television producers knew that if a show succeeded, it would be likely that viewers could watch the episodes repeatedly for years.

The specific strategies of reruns and syndication did have a direct effect on storytelling strategies: reruns were not typically scheduled sequentially or on a sufficiently regular schedule to guarantee that viewers would be able to rewatch a series in chronological (or any logical) order. This meant that producers needed to make episodes that could be shuffled, watched in any sequence with minimal disruptions to narrative logic. Hence the dominant form of primetime television storytelling from the 1950s to the 1990s was self-contained episodic narration regardless of genre, from sitcom to police procedural to family drama. While individual episodes might benefit from rewatching, there was rarely a primetime show in the classic network era that demanded knowledge from previous episodes to understand what’s going on.

If you stop and think about it, this is a pretty unlikely mode of storytelling. A consistent setting, continuing characters, recurring themes and types of events – but little or no long-term memory or persistence of the events and occurrences of what happens in any episode. Regular viewers accrue memories of what happens in the characters’ lives, but few things of significance seem to occur that change relationships or the status of characters in a meaningful way. I can’t think of another medium or mode of storytelling that mirrors the episodic television series in this way (besides perhaps a series of crime & detective novels?) – which suggests that it’s a unique model predicated on the industrial mechanics and necessities of the network system.

The rise of primetime serialization parallels the rise of home video, with late-1970s innovators (Soap, Dallas) and early-1980s breakthroughs (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere) offering stories designed to be watched in sequence. To achieve these continuing stories, primetime borrowed from daytime serials that had been running continuing storyworlds for decades, building in techniques of redundancy to allow viewers to miss episodes without much penalty and focusing continuity primarily on character relationships with less central seriality of complex events or mysteries. While syndication practices didn’t adapt to such series, the increasing availability of VCRs throughout the 1980s allowed people to timeshift episodes to avoid disruptions in continuity. In these instances, I don’t think the technology drove the storytelling, but that the availability of this timeshifting tool opened the door to a viewing practice of more dedicated viewership regardless of following the network’s schedule.

This culminated in the first series that was probably designed to be watched & rewatched on videotape: Twin Peaks. This show, and others from the 1990s like The X-Files and Babylon 5, encouraged obsessive viewers to use VCRs to decode and piece together the complex narrative, trying to present a storyworld that not only needed to be watched in sequence, but invited rewatching for comprehension. However, the VCR timeshift has always been a marginal practice for hardcore fans, not the norm for a mass audience, and thus remained lodged within the terrain of cult programming.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, television storytelling over the last 10 years has embraced a model of narrative complexity that has stemmed in part from the availability and popularity of television on DVD in recent years. While episodic series are still more frequent in primetime than serialized narratives, the shift is pronounced and even more episodic series are embracing more seriality. For shows that are highly serialized, the amount of redundancy & repetition of narrative information has been reduced as well – shows like Lost, Alias, Arrested Development, and Veronica Mars regularly include moments referring to a previous episode (often years beforehand) offered subtly for the hardcore viewers or rewatchers to pick-up, often via DVD. Producers conceive complex narratives as unified seasons, designed to be converted to a box set at year’s end with a single set of arcs and themes to be viewed in sequence and in total. There is little question that these storytelling practices are designed to cater to the ability to rewatch (or watch for the first time) on DVD in linear succession, not the random haphazard patterns of syndication, where such programs have failed to take hold.

Interestingly, alongside the rise of narratively complex television ideal for DVD has been a thriving market of programs fitting into traditional episodic norms, notably crime procedurals like Law & Order and C.S.I. that are still staples of syndication, and reality programs like American Idol or Deal or No Deal that are typically destined to be watched once in an ephemeral mode of viewing. Such genres and programs have comparatively little life on DVD – they might still sell, but rarely with the success of more cultishly devoured complex narratives. But such parallel modes of television storytelling highlight that technological and industrial shifts don’t automatically or predictably cause wholesale changes, but rather influence gradual and multiple developments in a range of ways.

All this is to say that I think the rise of the DVD has had more direct impacts on television storytelling than Bordwell suggests for film. It’s not because of the technology of the DVD, or even the ability to rewatch, but the reframing of a television series or season as a discrete object, a narrative volume with its own integrity and unity which creators can use to guarantee that viewers will be able to consume the story in its proper order and pace. The result has been a loosening of the episodic model that itself was predicated on the unusual demands of syndication as a distribution strategy. In television, all norms and creative practices are shaped by institutional and technological systems –  in the case of the emerging modes of storytelling, it’s tied to more than just the rise of DVDs, but that’s for another blog entry someday….

(1) Check out Derek Kompare‘s work on TV-on-DVD and reruns for the scoop on the industrial and technological dimensions of these developments.



3 Responses to “Storytelling technologies”

  1. 1 kbusse

    Thanks for the link as well as your interesting response. I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a bit uncertain about the default valuing of complexity (it’s the postmodernist in me who’s still somewhere rejecting the values of the modernists, one of which was, of course, complexity🙂.

    What I found interesting, however, was Bordwell’s discussion of random access readers and how that might relate to your work on spoilers. personally, I’m reading all over the place and often watch things on the computer to do the same most easily. In fact, I often purposefully look at the end (of an ep or a book) quickly, thus spoiling myself.

    Anyway…nothing you guys haven’t said here and in the article, but I thought it was interesting how the two intimately connect–at least for me.


  1. 1 Observations on film art and FILM ART : New media and old storytelling
  2. 2 Film, Zuschauer und neue Medien « dvdbiblog

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