We've been enjoying Jessica Jones on Netflix. After that, we have Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. Last month, we ate up Alpha House.
When HBO started making its own series, it had the slogan, "It's not TV, it's HBO." This wasn't just a slogan. It was an accurate statement about genre. A pay cable show has a different mandate than a broadcast or basic cable TV show.
TV shows are about ratings. The product is not the show, it's the ads. The show is there to get you to watch the ads. So TV shows are about (a) number of eyeballs, and, to a lesser extent, (b) demographics of the eyeballs. (Good demographics kept The West Wing on the air in spite of less-than-stellar ratings.) TV shows are built to keep you watching over the commercial break, and over the weeklong break between shows. They're all about cliffhangers and act outs.
In pay cable, the show actually is the product. HBO shows are successful when they cause viewers to subscribe and stay subscribed. HBO doesn't care if you watch all their shows, or just one show, in any given month, so long as you love that one show so much you're willing to cough up $15 to see it.
But HBO shows still roll out once a week. Eventually you can watch them all in a few days when there's a marathon, and after that there's the DVD, but they're built to be watched one a week. Even in a soap opera like Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy, each episode needs to work on its own.
Along comes streamed binge-watching. Netflix shows do not have to be built to be watched one a week. Who on Earth has that kind of patience? It's all I can do to watch only one Jessica Jones a night.
Now, Jessica Jones is written by (excellent) TV writers, so its episodes do work on their own. They reach an emotional climax at the end. The storytelling slows and the camera goes in for a closeup or out for a wide shot, and you know it's time to go make that sandwich.
But it doesn't have to be made that way. Melissa Rosenberg only has to keep you away from the remote for 20 seconds. If you just sit there, the next episode will stream. She doesn't have to tell an episodic story. She could just tell a 10 hour saga. That's how quite a few people will experience the first season of Jessica Jones, after all.
Network research shows that the average prime time TV viewer watches one out of four episodes of shows they like. So much as the writers like to craft a whole season, it's not being experienced that way. HBO is appointment TV (or non-TV) so it's more likely people will catch most of the episodes. But Melissa Rosenberg knows for sure that you're going to watch the episodes in the right order, and you won't miss any. She can also assume that you've watched the previous episode pretty recently.
Unlike TV, you are probably only watching one Netflix show at once. We'll watch Jessica Jones; then we'll watch Man in the High Castle.
We need a new name for whatever this form is. It's not TV, after all. A lot of millenials don't even own TVs. They watch their TV shows on their computers.
These shows have as much in common with really long movies on Netflix as they do with TV shows. If I were watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I'd probably watch them in 45 minute chunks, or maybe I'd watch them all over a weekend.
We need another word for them, or "TV" is going to become one of those odd words like "mixtape" that have lost their physical referent and just mean the function that that physical thing used to have.
Whatever we call them, they're going to change TV as much or more than pay cable ever did.