I have rarely watched LIVE television since 1981 – and now others are joining me.
VTRs emerged around 1960 – but they cost a fortune and were only available to the Industry.
VCRs came out in the late Seventies, but initially they too were very expensive. However, by the early Eighties, their prices had come down and soon everybody had one.
And when digital video technology moved from the Industry to the consumer, DVRs replaced them.
VCRs and DVRs were used primarily for three purposes: playing pre-recorded material on your TV, recording broadcast material for storage, allowing you to review it at will – and “time-shifting” broadcast material.
And it is this LAST facility that this piece is about.
After decades of being slaves to TV programme schedulers, VCRs finally allowed people to watch what they wanted, WHEN they wanted.
And today’s PVRs give greater flexibility than ever before.
VCRs generally contained RF tuners, allowing consumers to typically record up to eight broadcast programmes on multiple channels. But unless they changed tapes (or later, used the “long play” facility – which drastically reduced picture quality) capacity was limited.
Of course, if they could afford two VCRs, this extended the capability – but few actually did this.
Then along came digital TV, with its decoders – and at around the same time, DVRs. The cheap ones just had disk-player/burners. However the burning diodes burned out regularly and you pretty much had to purchase a whole new unit every time.
But DVD-Rs were better. These included hard-drives, so you only had to burn disks of programmes you wanted to KEEP. Those you merely wished to time-shift you could watch on the hard-drive, then delete.
However, unless your broadcaster supported these units, you had to constantly change channels on your decoder – a major pain in the arse.
Which is where the ubiquitous PVR came in. It had a decoder AND a hard drive – but no disk-player/burner. If you wanted to keep a programme permanently, you had to run it into a DVD-R (or DVR). But playing pre-recorded disks was easy – you just used a cheap external unit.
And since most people only wanted to time-shift programmes, they revolutionised television. Now you could book single programmes – or WHOLE SERIES – and the PVR would take care of everything.
In the past, the whole business of recording TV was a thorny issue – it could cost the Industry dearly. But although PVRs DO technically COPY programmes – while they remain in the PVR, they can only be used for time-shifting, which costs said Industry nothing.
Oh sure, you CAN keep a “library” of films, concerts – even entire series – on your hard-drive. But the more material you keep, the less ROOM you have for that time-shifting. Thus with most people, said libraries tend to be SMALL.
Which brings us (and not a moment too soon) to the subject this article is actually ABOUT – BINGE-WATCHING.
It all started with “24” – the modern equivalent of the serials of old.
Running in pseudo-real-time, it featured counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer having a bad day – 24 hours – 24 episodes – each ending with a classic “cliff-hanger” – which people HATED.
Naturally, they were left wanting to know what happened NEXT – but had to wait a WEEK to find out.
Thus when Jay Leno revealed on “The Tonight Show” that he would Tivo* each entire series of “24” – then when it had finished, binge-watch the whole thing over a weekend – he gave people ideas.
[*For those who don’t know, Tivo is an “intelligent” PVR that analyses your preferences and “second-guesses” what ELSE you might like to watch. Therefore, if you book a series of “Glee” it will also likely book “Martha”, repeats of “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” – and half the programmes on the Hallmark Channel.]
The thing was, once you jumped the ads, titles, credits and “previously on…” sequences of “24” the whole series actually only ran around sixteen hours. Thus you could watch four hours on Saturday afternoon – then dinner – then another four hours – then bed – then likewise on Sunday.
Six months in two days. Done.
And although this system was impractical for news, chat-shows, topical comedy, sport and other “current events” programmes, it was perfectly feasible for SERIES.
Now series have always been the mainstay of television, from “The Lone Ranger” to “The Blacklist” – and are perfect for binge-watching. Indeed, even the schedulers have realised this and regularly present “marathons” of recently-screened series, during off-peak hours.
But is this a GOOD THING?
I mean, if you received a huge box of chocolates this Christmas, whilst it might be tempting to gorge the LOT, the sugar content will half-KILL you.
No. If you have any sense, you will RESIST the temptation and just have a few each day. And perhaps it is thus with TV series.
But now they can be recorded complete (if you wait long enough) and are being sold in blocks online, the whole business of series is becoming like that box of chocs.
At the moment, MOST people still watch series episodes soon after their first transmission (particularly if they want to avoid hearing SPOILERS if the series is popular).
But as TV moves closer to being a part of the Interweb, binge-watching is on the increase – particularly now many popular series are being made for cable and satellite networks, who cannot afford to commit to twenty-six episodes and settle for sixteen, thirteen, ten – or even less – a year.
And these are often the BEST shows on television.
“Dexter” and “Homeland” run twelve eps a season and “The Newsroom” maybe nine or ten.
Many British shows go with seven eps, with “Sherlock” having just THREE (but double-length: 90 minutes). Even “Doctor Who” never has more than thirteen eps a season – and if the British government are leaning on their finances, a lot less.
A seven-ep season only runs four hours forty – really, it is just a long movie – and even a twelve-ep season is watchable in just two sittings.
Plus with top shows’ writers now EVOLVING stories, with arcs lasting entire seasons (like “Dexter”) the temptation to TREAT series like long movies is irresistible.
However, new success “The Blacklist” still intends to run twenty-two eps a year, while the ‘reimagined’ “Hawaii-Five-0” continues to run about the same number – and many other popular series are the same. Thus for the moment, six-month seasons still dominate the main networks’ schedules.
But could binge-watching ultimately sound the death-knell for them? Will “annual mini-series” completely take over? Only time will tell.
But if they do, that COULD be a good thing. Aside from consumer viewing habits moving towards binge-watching, it might mean MORE, hopefully DIFFERENT series, rather than seemingly ENDLESS variants of the same cop shows and medical dramas.
Multiplicity would encourage diversity, new ideas and originality – foreign words to TV execs.
Change IS coming. The question is, will it create or destroy? I’ll keep you posted…