October 03, 2007

DVD Box Sets and How We Watch TV

Do you remember the past, dear reader? The olden days? About seven or eight years ago when only the rich had DVD players and there were only about 50 films out for it? DVD has changed a lot in the film industry: film-makers now have to be aware of a DVD release when filming, planning behind-the-scenes documentaries and so on. While a lot of effort also goes into assembling the package afterwards with commentaries and deleted scenes and other fun stuff. And DVDs do outsell old VHS releases of movies by a fair bit. But at least there were VHS releases.

For TV, it’s been a much bigger shift.

It’s quite normal now to go into Virgin or HMV and see multiple shelves heaving under the weight of TV-show box-sets, including stuff that hasn’t even been shown on terrestrial TV (or in the UK at all, in some odd cases). But this really didn’t used to be the case. In the days of VHS all you’d find in Virgin were one-off best-ofs for the biggest TV shows: either a collection of clips for sketch comedy shows, or a chosen number of episodes for dramas like The X-Files. For the massively popular cult shows like Star Trek, there’d be monthly VHS releases available at specialist retailers containing two episodes each and retailing at around £15. So for a 24-episode season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’d be looking at a cool £288. You can now buy all seven on DVD for a total of £135.
The X-Files took a different approach, with VHS box-sets being sold by the season for around £200, while now all 9 series are £140

It’s not just that they were ripping us off back then, it’s also that demand didn’t really exist in the same way. People just wouldn’t buy entire TV series to take home, it just wasn’t done. They’d watch them on TV on a weekly basis instead. But as DVD grew and grew in popularity, the concept of a box-set became more and more appealing (not least because 6 DVDs takes up a lot less room on the shelf than 12 VHSs) and while early releases like X-Files series 1 still hovered around the £100 mark, prices slowly started to fall. These days you don’t pay more than £60 for a series, £30-40 is more typical, and they’re £17.99 in the sales.

But in doing this, we’ve discovered a whole new way of watching TV. Okay DVD isn’t entirely responsible: TIVO, people downloading shows from the internet (legally or otherwise!) and endless repeats on cable have helped, but DVD is still the biggest market. In fact it’s probably two new methods of watching TV.

The first is the daily viewing. Instead of a person or a couple settling down in front of the TV after a day at work, and watching whatever is on (generally with one or two things they watch every week in the same slot), instead they buy a box-set, and watch an episode or two of that show every day. When they finish it, they buy either the next series or an entirely different one, and repeat. They’re watching no more TV than before, but rather than watching 7 different shows a week, one every night, they watch the same show each night.

The second is often done in conjunction with the first. It’s the ‘binge watch’. When someone finds themselves with a day off and nothing else to do, why not just watch 8-episodes of Heroes in a row? The presence of a DVD set in effect removes the one-episode-a-week restriction on what we can watch at once.

But so what? So viewing habits are changing but why does this effect TV production? Isn’t it just the end-user that consuming existing media in a different way? I mean, yes, I could be watching Lost on DVD, which was made just a year ago, but I’ve also got my Homicide box-sets from the 80s that I watch in the same way.

But back when TV was designed to be watched on a once-a-week schedule, and the producers knew for certain no-one could watch it in a different way, they were presented with certain restrictions but also certain freedoms. Complex continual ‘arc-based’ dramas were avoided in favour of done-in-one episodic shows with limited carry-over from one episode to the next. Because you simply couldn’t expect the audience to remember everything that had happened previously (and there was no room on the five terrestrial channels for ‘catch up’ repeats). But it also meant you could get lazy. A series with exactly the same episode structure that played out in the same way every episode was far less noticeable when you only watched one episode a week, than if they’re watched back-to-back.

Producers are now designing shows with the DVD market in mind: Tim Kring mentioned in a recent interview that Heroes was always a show ‘made for DVD’. So what we have is the very nature of TV drama changing with the changes in the medium. TV episodes used to be mini-films. They were the short story to the film’s novel. Quicker stories wrapped up in 45 minutes rather than two hours. But now, TV is turning into the 3-part epic trilogy, and being increasingly used to tell stories that are just too long to fit into the limited time span of a film. A film is generally 3 hours at most. One series of a US TV show is around 16 hours, and that’s often just the first chapter.

This is big. This is the very nature of a medium changing before us, and I think it’s changing for the better. But while in this period of transition we’re also going to face some problems. For a start, are the advertisers ever going to let us abandon the ‘certain shows at certain times every week’ system that has served them so well? Will we ever get an entirely on-demand TV service. I’d hope so, but if we’re not careful we could end up stuck in the same limbo as the comics world. Most people that want to read comics will buy a trade paperback from the bookstore that contains a complete story, but the die-hards still want the regular monthly editions, so the paperbacks become collected versions of 6 issues of the monthly, and the writers are forced to write stories that work in both the monthly format, and the trade paperback – possibly compromising them both. TV is currently at this point. The show needs to be satisfying enough for people that want to watch it each week (a problem exacerbated by the US’s use of long mid-season breaks) while taking advantage of this new long form of storytelling open to them.

Here’s hoping it all works out.

Dean Love has just started watching House and is thrilled at the proposition of at least another 60 episodes before he ‘catches up’

- 2 comments by 2 or more people

  1. John Dale

    Ironically enough, of current shows, House is more guilty than most of using exactly the same structure for every episode. You can tell by a glance at your watch where in the -problem-diagnosis-solution cycle they are, week after week.

    03 Oct 2007, 12:55

  2. Yeah I’m beginning to realise that….

    04 Oct 2007, 04:38

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