Orla Keaveney takes a scalpel to the television industry to see whether flailing networks can keep up with the changing shape of household entertainment.


It comes as a surprise, then, to hear that cable TV companies like Sky, Verizon, and AT&T, have increased their prices by up to 40% in the past five years, according to the Leichtman Research Group. Almost one million Americans have cancelled cable subscriptions in the last quarter alone – surely a hefty bill will push even more customers to cancel in favour of streaming services.

While investing in production may seem like a good strategy, as evidenced by the success of HBO’s big budget hit Game of Thrones, there’s no point in pumping money into a show if your viewers have cancelled their subscriptions before it even airs.

Should cable TV services be putting up more of a fight to keep their customers? Or will their long-term strategies pay off pulling back audiences with quality shows when they’ve grown tired of binge-watching? It is unclear whether or not our viewing habits and preferences will evolve with changing technology, making old platforms like cable TV and live broadcasts redundant. Yet it is likely that our tastes remain essentially the same, despite passing fads and gimmicks.

Trying to foresee the development of a perpetually changing industry is notoriously difficult. However, based on the direction that online-exclusive series have taken, such as House of Cards, Transparent, or Stranger Things, there are some trends that we can safely expect to encounter soon, rather than later.

The constant experimentation with format will no doubt accelerate, as online streaming companies are free to push boundaries, without the oversight of traditional media. Netflix need not worry about long-held television standards; instead of cramming stories into the standard 22 minute blocks, a series could switch unpredictably between 15 minute-episodes and hour-longs, with the odd 2-minute standalone scene thrown in.

“The evolution of media has been gradual; rapid changes tend to intimidate rather than entice viewers.”

There’s nothing stopping companies from experimenting with more erratic styles, other than the chance that some viewers may be put off, like those who are more comfortable with consistency. Online series have the flexibility to test out new approaches, and to discover features audiences didn’t even know they wanted.

The “season dumps” associated with online streaming will bring a gradual change in the story arcs across seasons – rather than coming up with plots that can be enjoyed even if you missed last week’s episode, writers will be able to take it for granted that audiences are following the series in order, and on consecutive days rather than weeks apart.

This has already made “binge-watching” a popular way to watch Netflix series, as the sense of resolution at the end of each episode has been reduced in favour of a hook for the next. It may in tandem lead to smoother character arcs and story writing, where a consistent arc can be drawn over many episodes without conceits to commercial breaks, delays, or other speedbumps.

Broadcast television has to contend with the watershed, the point between general audience and adult-oriented programming, when there’s a chance children may be watching. Online series do not face this problem – Netflix, for example, has an entire Kids section in which no adult content can appear.

Producers are now under less pressure to censor their content, resulting in more explicit depictions of violence, drug use and sexuality in TV. Shows like BoJack Horseman and Orange is the New Black feature racy content that would not have passed cable TV censors. The less censorship the better, as far as realism and artistic integrity are concerned.

Despite these opportunities to revolutionise the way we watch and engage with TV shows, the programming that will appeal to mainstream audiences won’t transform completely. We may like to see exciting new spins on familiar tropes and traditions every now and then, but general audiences are often unwilling to try anything far outside of their expectations.

The evolution of media has been gradual; rapid changes tend to intimidate rather than entice viewers. Even as writers and producers begin to experiment, TV is unlikely to break with the familiar formulas of broadcast television until audiences are ready.

So while Netflix and company will no doubt bring plenty of fresh ideas to the world of television, it’s hard to know if we can dismiss their predecessors completely. The same fundamental, generic elements will still play a crucial role in the structure of a TV show, even if the packaging varies. But if traditional services continue to rest on their laurels rather than moving with the times, the public may soon forget what they have to offer.

Imagining our homes without television sets can be difficult – as Joey from Friends once said, “You don’t have a TV? What’s all your furniture pointed at?” But people likely felt the same way about their wireless sets in the ‘50s – unless broadcast TV networks can keep the pace of their competitors, laptops and streaming boxes will surely reign supreme in our sitting rooms.