Serial Love - Scandinavian Traveler, Jan 2018
The TV series is very much back in fashion. We can’t stop (binge) watching our favorite new shows. But how did TV drama go from trash to treasure – and will its new golden age last?
Once upon a time, families gathered around a device called the television. They spent a few hours every evening together, watching programs broadcast within cleverly planned schedules, designed to keep them watching in order to sell slots to advertisers.
Across the Western world, people knew exactly when popular shows like Dallas or ER would be aired and had those times etched in their minds, to the extent that the TV schedules would dictate dinnertimes or phone calls to friends and relatives.
Today, in an age when streaming services like Netflix, HBO and Viaplay launch new series at an ever-increasing rate and people binge-watch them in one weekend, all that seems like ancient history – but it was actually not that long ago. The revolution in our viewing habits has been fast and furious, happening in just over a decade.
“Streamed television started to really take off in the mid-2000s,” says Chris Baumann, who researches streaming media at Stockholm University. “In 2010 it got really big. That’s when it began mattering to people’s lives.”
Netflix established on-demand viewing by releasing the entire season of House of Cards in 2013. Even before that, however, a quiet revolution had been bubbling under the surface. And the first steps towards this new style of watching TV were taken back in the days of VHS.
“We talk about binging like it’s exclusive for the streaming age, but it was actually popularized with the introduction of VHS box sets,” Baumann says. “Netflix just gets the credit for that because it’s part of their marketing. But Netflix has upset the traditional media industries in many ways, and one way is by releasing all episodes of a series for on-demand viewing at once.”
It is not surprising that any story about the rise of streamed television will have Netflix in the leading role. With over 100 million subscribers, the company is the biggest player in the field. But fittingly, even Netflix started life as a DVD rental chain.
The company was founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings, who had the idea to start renting DVDs by mail. This didn’t do so well though, so Hastings felt he needed to try something completely new. The subscription model was introduced the year after. By paying a flat fee, you could rent as many DVDs per month as you liked – a bit like owning a gym card, but actually using the service.
“I remember thinking, ‘God, this whole thing could go down,’” Hastings told Fortune magazine in 2009. “We said let’s try the more radical subscription idea. We knew it wouldn’t be terrible, but we didn’t know if it would be great.”
Today, we know. Around 2010, the DVD market starting declining and the time was ripe for the next step – streaming. “You need a fast internet connection for streaming, which is why this couldn’t have happened earlier,” Baumann says. “When broadband penetration reached a satisfactory level, the infrastructure was there.”
The technical means were one thing – the content itself another. The films and shows on the early streaming services were often not the best, as acquiring or producing prize-winning dramas was deemed too expensive. Quality television did exist in the 1990s – Twin Peaks, released on ABC in 1990, is one example that still has cult status – but it was more of an exception than the rule.
Around the same time as Hastings introduced his DVD subscription business, HBO launched a TV series which would change the industry completely. The revolution towards today’s well-written TV drama really started with The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999. The show, chronicling the life of a New Jersey mafia boss in mid-life crisis, was originally rejected by several networks for being too risky and complicated. But it went on to win 21 Emmys and turned HBO from a small, run-of-the-mill cable channel to an admired producer of TV drama.
HBO’s financing was also based on subscriptions – which started increasing rapidly as The Sopranos gained momentum. With that, broadcasters and producers around the world started paying attention. Soon, they began the race to create cinematic quality, multi-layered TV drama that would get people hooked again and again, and pay for it.
The increased quality, with series like Six Feet Under, The West Wing and The Wire leading the way, attracted not only viewers, but also people in the industry.
“The talent started to move around 2005 or 2006 in Denmark,” remembers Piv Bernth, founder of production company Apple Tree Productions and former head of drama at Danmarks Radio (DR), the Danish public broadcaster behind international hits such as Borgen and The Killing. “Just before that, actor Mads Mikkelsen made his TV debut in the popular series Unit 1. Good writers became interested in television, because when you had 10–12 hours to tell the story you were able to make your story and characters more complex.”
Suddenly, writers were experimenting with established formats. And the classic crime series, in which a certain case had always been solved in one episode and the next episode would introduce a new one, was about to get a complete overhaul.
“When Søren Sveistrup wrote The Killing, in which one single murder case was investigated for 20 episodes, it was groundbreaking,” Bernth says. “After that came Borgen. Since then, we have a good level of drama in Denmark, which has been broadcast around the world.”
According to Baumann, it was only natural that television had to fight for its place in the sun. The same was true for cinema when it was first introduced.
“Historically, TV has had a bit of an image problem compared to cinema,” he says. “But when you’re the new kid on the block you need to earn your respect. In the early days, cinema had a bad reputation compared with something established like theatre. And the people who made it famous in the beginning were playwrights.”
With HBO and The Sopranos, television was transformed. Today, it attracts the most sought-after writers, actors and directors in the industry, from David Fincher to Nicole Kidman, due in part to the fact that creative freedom is now considered bigger in TV than in cinema, as John Travolta, who starred in The People v. O.J. Simpson, explained to industry paper Variety. “Important artists are attracted to freedom of expression. TV is more liberal than movies are right now.”
These days, audiences are showered with breathtaking volumes of television drama.
The number of scripted shows on broadcast, cable and digital platforms in the US has grown from 266 in 2011 to 455 in 2016, according to an analysis by 21st Century Fox’s FX Networks unit.
And the number of productions is not the only thing that’s growing. Budgets are getting bigger as well. The first season of Netflix’s The Crown, for instance, cost a record $130 million to produce.
While there are few guarantees that a certain show will be a hit, broadcasters are doing everything they can to make sure their investment pays off. Netflix is using its vast database of viewer preferences to create and target shows, while smaller players like DR rely on a more traditional system of creating top-notch television.
“The number one thing for DR is to tell the stories no one else is telling,” Piv Bernth says. “When everyone is going in the same direction, we go in another direction. You have to stand out. We want stories that can create debate and arouse questions. That’s one of the criteria DR uses when writers come to pitch their ideas.”
After an idea has been green-lit at DR, the writer and producer start working on the script. The development phase will last for 9–10 months, after which another year or so is spent shooting the series. So, while a season of Borgen is sometimes watched in a weekend, it has been two years in the making.
For the broadcasters, that’s a difficult equation. The audience’s hunger for new content seems insatiable, but the costs of production are often difficult to manage. That’s especially true for the smaller players. In 2018, Netflix alone is planning to spend $7–8 billion on content, while DR’s total budget is around $580 million – including news and sports.
Netflix recently canceled several popular shows, hiked its subscription price and announced that it plans to raise $1.6 billion through bonds to fund its expanded content budget. To be able to compete, Nordic public broadcasters have announced that they will be joining forces to produce high-budget Scandi series.
Money is one reason why Bernth believes we may be approaching “peak TV,” a time when the amount of scripted television hours starts declining.
“I think there will always be a need for good stories,” she says. “But at the moment, there is so much out there. There’s the wonderful stuff, and the not-so-wonderful stuff. And the latter will disappear. Formats will be shorter too, six to eight episodes, or some even just four. Why? Because it’s hard for people to find the time to watch TV, and because it’s expensive to finance so much production.”
At the same time, she and most other experts believe that both streaming and the new quality television are here to stay. Besides people’s natural yearning for entertainment, there’s another strong argument for this – our need for uniting experiences, something that Netflix’s CFO David Wells touched on when he spoke at a conference in New York.
“Content is becoming more global,” he said. “People are becoming more connected through these stories that we tell, so we’re going to have more content and more global subscribers.”
Chris Baumann agrees, saying that Netflix’s policy of releasing new series at the same time all over the world is uniting people.
Even though our viewing habits have changed, we still gather around television programs. The only difference is that while in the past TV brought together a family or perhaps a country, today it’s connecting people across borders.
“That creates a communal experience like the one you get from the Olympics or rare political events like the Berlin wall coming down,” Baumann says. “Netflix is tapping into that need that people have. Personally, I think there’s something good about watching something together – even if you are not sitting next to each other.”