Today, much of the TV drama world descends on The London hotel in West Hollywood for the C21 Drama Summit West.
It’s boom time in drama, and while many insiders and industry watchers are wondering if there’s too much drama, nobody can argue that creativity isn’t at an all time high (for a side read: this piece on Vulture is worth your time).
Since I’m lucky enough to work across different media — books, tv, film, digital — I thought I’d share my own thoughts on the reasons why TV drama is so hot, and some reasons to be optimistic about its continuing cultural dominance….sadly at the expense of other media.
Why is TV drama so flippin’ awesome right now?
There are some obvious answers,which get thrown around, such as: Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards for Netflix, the rise of the SVODs, and the migration of feature film talent into TV. But digging deeper, I think there’s more to it than that…
1. Cinema sucks. It breaks my heart to say this, since I used to regularly worship at the church of cinema, but going to the movies just isn’t a good experience for grown ups anymore. Beyond the cost profile (babysitting, ticket prices, over-priced unhealthy snacks), the actual experience of movie-going is at an all time low. Despite IMAX and 4k, the actual consumer experience of going to the cinema today approximates a trip to the bus station. Mark Kermode (in his must-read book, The Good, The Bad, and The Multiplex) likens the decline of cinema to the time when exhibitors pulled projectionists out of the booths and popped in DCP.
I think that’s part of it, but sitting in a darkened room being bombarded with ads for 20+ minutes and then suffering through chatty audience members, half of whom are likely to whip out their glowing screen from their pockets, all the while worrying that you too could be in the next Aurora, the exhibitors have let the audience down. They’ve focused on cost cutting at the expense of experience-building (I know, I put myself through college working at a local cinema…which no longer exists). This has kept grown ups away, all but removing drama from cinema…
2. Drama has gone to TV. If The Godfather was being made today, it’d be a six part drama on HBO. Goodfellas would be a limited run series on ShowTime and Kramer vs. Kramer would be gunning for Emmys not Oscars. Since movie theatres have become so unpleasant for adult audiences, people are cocooning and the content is finding them in….
3. The living room is lux. Many people have big, flat screens now with good sound and a glass of wine readily available. Plus, the living room is a more social experience. I know many couples who’ll binge a few eps of TV on the sofa instead of a night out. Which means…
4. Talent finds the audience. The completes the circle. The audience is at home, either in front of a big screen, or tucked up in bed with the laptop/iPad, and the great storytellers who want to tell big, ambitious challenging dramas know where to find them. And that audience is talking…
5. TV has become social. With the rise of social networks, there’s a way to socialise around the metaphorical campfire both online (#Marcella was trending in the UK as itv aired the final ep of Tony Wood’s London set scandi-style noir), but even more importantly…in the real world. TV drama has become water cooler conversation fodder. “Did you see Game of Thrones last night?” is a good way to break the ice at work. But this has come at the expense of…
6. Reading is under threat. This past Christmas, I did an experiment whereby I counted how many times people asked me (a published author by the way!) “what are you reading?” vs. “what are you watching?” The tally was 0:21. I move in literary circles and literally nobody asked me what I was reading. The conversations always went to TV, and by TV I mean in the broadest definition….often untethered from an actual television and delivered via streaming or DVD box set. Do the experiment yourself, and you’ll be surprised and perhaps saddened.
So what does this mean?
1. Without intervention from exhibitors, cinema is going to be only for teenagers, blockbuster vfx epics, and super hero movies.
2. Books are going to become niche, like vinyl.
3. Drama will continue to rise, but will change and evolve. The UK standard limited run series format is likely going to become the new norm….especially for cable. There is simply too much content for any one avid viewer to consume, especially with US networks sticking with long running seasons. But the likes of War & Peace, The Night Manager, and Doctor Foster will offer viewers more choices with less time commitment.
Viewers can get in an out either in one binge session or over the course of four to eight weeks, and consume multiple shows at the same time.
But can it sustain?
Perhaps my favourite book on the TV biz is the late, great Brandon Tartikoff’s autobiography, THE LAST GREAT RIDE. I checked the copyright date….1992.
In 1992 there were 5.4 billion people on the planet.
As of this morning, there are 7.4 billion.
That’s 2 billion more people than when Brandon wrote about his “golden age” of TV.
Now, most of those are in emerging markets, many of them very poor, but as those markets actually do emerge, people everywhere love to be entertained. And with the exception of North Korea, the TV business has never been more global.
In Brandon’s day it was possible to get a 30 share in the US and have a hit. Today, one can grab a small fraction of that, but replicate it around the world and have a solid show.
While we humans seem to have no upper limit on reproduction (a blog post for another time), we haven’t yet found out how to manufacture more hours in the day. So at some point, we will hit an upper ceiling in terms of sheer hours of content consumed. But with the slip in cinema, the ‘nichification’ of reading (sigh), and the opening of global markets, I think we’re well placed to tell gripping stories to global audiences for the near future.
As a writer, as a creator, and as a viewer….I think our best stories are ahead of us.
Save me a spot on the sofa…..oh, and pass that glass of wine to toast TV creativity.