December 29, 2006
Craig Jacobsen and the Conflict Between Episodic Storytelling and Broadcasting Nature

Another interesting piece from Flow that I wanted to bring to everyone's attention is an essay by Craig Jacobsen from Mesa Community College. Jacobsen, in an essay entitled "The Simultaneous Dawning and Twilight of Broadcast Network Narrative", builds on his previous piece on "How TV Met Narrative Sophistication."

Throughout the fall, we have been documenting the debate about the future of complex television. I have written in response to Jeremy Dauber's column in the Christian Science Monitor depicting the ways in which culture has shifted with the rise of DVD viewings and how the broadcast system is not as good at supporting many complex narratives in primetime simultaneously. I wrote about the cancellation of Smith and how "the middle ground gets you cancelled," as well, concluding that:

In this case, what is said about Hollywood makes sense for television as well, and one has to wonder, as show after show falls off network lineups this fall, which of them could have gone on to be major successes in the long-term. But, until there is a monetized way to value the shows that take the middle ground, and until there is more economic incentive on the network's part to care about the success of shows long-term, then would-be fans of Smith and many other shows will have to just keep guessing what might have been.

I also wrote in response to Bill Carter's New York Times piece, in which he made the point that viewers are becoming commitment-phobic in fear that they would devote significant time to a complex narrative, only to see it cancelled. I wrote:

If people aren't willing to devote themselves to a series while it's on the air because they are afraid the cancel-happy networks are just going to pull the rug out from under them, does this mean that the need for a new model is developing for these types of shows? It seems that this current system, where networks want to push shows that are more involved and have a longer shelf-life, is contradicting with the older form of throwing on self-contained shows at the beginning of a season and quickly canceling many of the series.

C3 affiliated faculty member Jason Mittell has joined in this conversation as well, criticizing some shows for what he calls unmotivated complexity.

In response, I pointed out an observation from Dr. David Thorburn here at MIT, who has said many times one of the problems with recent scholarship is that the term "complexity" has been defined too narrowly. I wrote, "It considers complexity only in terms of narrative structure, and he contends that such narrative twists and turns is only complexity in a very shallow sense. That may be the case with the viewer apathy toward some of these shows, in that there is no sense of real commitment but rather only complex storytelling for the sake of being purposefully difficult, with no real or organic reason to withhold information other than to toy with the audience and to be able to claim complexity."

This more recent piece by Jacobsen points out that, while television seems to finally get the power of seriality in its most recent drive for complex television, the problems of broadcast are becoming apparent, in that it is hard to remember details over the course of a season, making primetime television not as agreeable to complex television as some originally thought, as opposed to DVD collections of TV shows.

Jacobsen writes, "Watching a season of a sophisticated high seriality program on DVD makes broadcast's deficiencies even more apparent. When one can exercise an almost novelistic control over narrative delivery (watching multiple episodes in a row, watching when one wants, freeze frame, slow motion, etc.), the experience is notably richer. One is able to appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of genuinely sophisticated narrative, and to engage more deeply with characters' emotional lives."

He concludes, "Such programming requires investments of audience time and energy that seem increasingly unlikely to occur on any schedule other than the audience's own. If that is indeed the case, then networks may be constrained to offering low sophistication/low seriality programming. It isn't hard to imagine a future in which broadcasting serves the role of advertising and secondary revenue stream for the primary medium: complete seasons of episodes packed for sale on DVD or for download."

I think his argument is an important one and one that we've been making for some time. It's the point I've been making about the cancellation of so many shows so early in the season and the point that several of the authors I have reacted to have made. If a show may go on in the long tail to make continued money in DVD boxed sets, how should that factor into decisions made about the initial broadcast of these shows? When you cancel a show for tepid ratings after two episodes, you might kill off a franchise that could have made substantial money in the long-term, perhaps because that show was better served for a DVD release.

Of course, my biggest gripe is that--with the exception of Jason Mittell--no one has brought daytime television into this argument that I have read in recent months. Shows that regularly maintain casts of 30 to 40 characters and might have 10 intertwining storylines happening simultaneously, and Jacobsen is writing about how television can't handle narrative complexity?

The problem is that, despite still having many million viewers, daytime television is considered on the periphery and almost seems like it doesn't even warrant discussion. How has daytime managed to thrive for more than 50 years with complexity as central to its development? Does the low production values and the stereotypes, the sheer volume of content and the fact that these shows often jump the shark and back several times, cause people to dismiss them? How important should these shows weigh in on arguments like Jacobsen's?

Soaps sidestep the problem of only airing once a week for 22 episodes a year and have continuous complexity by constructing a vast cast of characters over time and a narrative universe that fans visit five days a week, without an off-season.

I agree that DVD sets will revolutionize the way television series are maintained, but proclaiming that broadcast, by its very nature, may not be able to allow complexity, needs some caveats. It is the 22-episode structure of primetime runs that causes this problem. There is a whole other history of complex television that has been ignored by many of the critics who are fascinated with the rise of complex television, even though it has existed for decades in daytime.

However, his points in particular about the ability to have a recorded copy of the text to analyze and rewatch is key, as soaps have not traditionally provided this type of activity and are texts that are much too large to archive as a whole or to manage even if you did archive the whole. DVD watching does transform the way these shows are understood.

So, how much should the daytime history of complexity and the long tail success of DVD sales be taken into account when green lighting series and trying to decide what to keep on the air?