In 1992, Time magazine famously predicted that with a advent of improvements to cable TV bandwidth, consumers would have access to 500 channels and nothing to watch. Now that we have streaming media services, like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and HBO GO, the options have vastly increased once again. Like living in a virtual media nirvana that our VHS-tape collecting predecessors could only dream of, thousands upon thousand of titles are available to us instantly. Instead of being limited to whatever was currently playing, customers can now select from voluminous libraries of media to watch on demand, up to and including a entire TV series in one sitting, if so inclined. Such “binge-watching” has already changed the way TV is made.
While the common consensus is that the vast wasteland just gets vaster and more wasteful with more bandwidth, It has been argued by Steven Johnson, that culture, especially TV and and movies, is actually getting more complex and appealing to smarter audiences. Now that hardcore fans can scour previous episodes looking for foreshadowing clues or callback jokes – and collate their findings on the internet – producers of some shows are constructing elaborate webs of inside jokes and self-references. It is no wonder that Arrested Development has found new life on Netflix after being banished from network TV: the amount of information far exceeds the capacity of a single casual viewing.
A show made for the pre-binge era is Numb3rs. The formulaic nature of the show may have been comforting to weekly viewers, but attempts to stage a personal Numb3rs marathon now on Amazon instant video is like trying to stuff an month’s worth of dessert in your face at one meal. Not recommended.
In the past, in addition to being formulaic, serial programs would often decide that everything would be “back to normal” at the end of each 30 minutes. This made episodes interchangeable, and basically order-less. When important plot details did come up, later episodes would be prefaced with a ten-second “previously, on…” segment, since many people tuning in did not catch it the first time. This, understandably, put a large damper on the telling of wide story arcs.
But now, shows that exist only online, like the Awesomes can, and do, openly mock the notion of trying to catch up viewers. The show refuses to summarize for you the happenings and revelations of the first season (let’s face, it, a lot happened), while insisting on picking up right where the action left off. If you are confused, you are just going to have to catch up on the episodes that you missed.
On “regular” TV, one amazing example of the power of dropping treats for the devoted is Gravity Falls. Creator Alex Hirsch insists on referencing previous (and future!) episodes, as in a pre-teen mystery solver saying “sorry I falsely accused you of murder last week.” Having a universe in which ideas and references persist makes the show somehow seem more permanent and real. This is a tall order for a show that features teen-hating ghosts and a 8 1/2 President of the United States. Miss something? You can just head to the fan wiki and see all of the forward and backward looking allusions.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I was amazed by the planning that went into the time traveling episode. Just’s just say it will give you a good reason to re-watch the first few episodes of the series. Remember, this is a show on the Disney channel, nominally for children, that is pondering the bootstrap paradox, although is cannot show Groucho Marx with his trademark cigar due to rule regarding tobacco depictions in kid shows.
So we can rue the amount of bandwidth mindlessly filled with reality shows or 24-hour news, or we can enjoy some of the latest Easter Eggs on some really smart shows.