• Peter Wilson

Content Is King — How Our Consumption Habits are Affecting the Way Content is Crafted.

Us ravenous masses of the world are consuming content faster than ever before. The average USA household has eleven connected devices, all vying for the eyes of the people therein, via an ever-expanding catalog of audio, video and written word. Leaving the house without one of these devices to feed us more content on the go, is akin to leaving the house without wearing any pants; it’s something the average person just isn’t in the habit of doing.

It would sound very ‘Year 2000’ of me to say that ‘the internet’ has caused this explosion of collective content-ness we are all experiencing right now, so I’ll instead say that it is the advancing technologies and networks that feed that virtual beast that is allowing us to share, socialize, stream, collect and subscribe to content with a new ease that our iPod carrying, MySpace posting, MSN chatting, ‘Year 2000’ versions of ourselves could ever have imagined.

By increasing this online feed of content, we have in turn increased our demand for it. Frequently called out as the ‘Netflix effect,’ we now don’t expect to wait for the content we consume. We want new, diverse, insightful, inspirational, educational, romantic, scary, funny, sad, and suspenseful content at the ready, to satiate whatever mood has taken us, at any time of day.

To embrace this demand, new platforms are emerging at a rapid frequency, to create and maintain revenue streams for the longstanding content owners/distributors around the world. Other platforms continue to emerge to give voice to other content creators; us…the masses that want an audience for our podcasts, blogs, novels, and videos.

Content is flying at us from all angles. But how is the way we’re currently consuming content affecting how the different artforms are crafted? Artforms have always followed trends, but these have traditionally been sparked by a ‘new sound’ or ‘style’ that excites audiences and in turn gets copied, adapted and repeated. Now, in a world where the advertising model has changed and the subscription platforms have grown, long-standing ‘norms’ in content creation are changing that are outside of the former mentioned creative shifts.

I decided to do a bit of a breakdown across the main mediums to explore how technology is shaping creativity in today's world. In future articles, I will go through other art forms such as music, news, books, blogs, and the news. But first, I will start with scripted television and the effect these new technologies are having on the creative process.

Scripted Television

I’m going to concentrate on scripted content for this article. Yes, youth are growing up with Youtube like we grew up with network TV, and there are certainly ways to craft these videos to maximize streams, grow viewership, and ad revenue, but the growth of these types of platforms and their effect on traditional content companies is an article for another time. I’m also going to avoid discussing reality TV, as passionately as I avoid watching it in life.

I think most would agree that television across the board has risen in quality in recent times. With the increase in competition for our subscription dollars, content creators like Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Apple, and many others, know that we have become very discerning viewers. They need expensive, well-written flagship shows to draw us in. Yes, these companies have huge catalogs of old, excellent television shows and movies on their platforms to hold our interest, but we’re no longer talking about them around the watercooler and getting those shows trending. You bragging about your weekend binge of The Golden Girls is doubtful to bring a lot of traffic to Hulu’s site. Continual new content is needed to make sure we’re making that first commitment to enter our credit card details and continue to allow them to debit us month-to-month.

With this change to a subscription model, certain major factors have changed what stories we can now tell. No longer are our content creators beholden to a network that is beholden to advertisers.

Before we kick-off, I will say that network TV is still alive and kicking. All of the points I make below are for shows made specifically for a streaming world. While this shift in creative storytelling may impact television developed with advertisement breaks in mind, these points are about episodic content that is free of those bonds.

Creatives Now Unshackled from the Bonds of the Advertisement Break

In the world of Network TV, a TV episode is either around twenty-two minutes or forty-four minutes long each, with advertising rounding those episodes out to 30 and 60 minutes respectively. The ad slots generally fall in the same time spot throughout the episode, splitting the storyline into distinct acts. At the end of each act (an ad break) you will usually be served a ‘hook,’ or plot development to ensure that you won’t stray in the impending three-minute hiatus. It’s a model that has worked for decades, and watching these shows back in a streaming context, without the ads, continues to work. It’s a great formula and makes for compelling, well-paced storytelling (in the right hands).

Streaming, however, allows for more creativity in writing because you’re not constrained to ad breaks and therefore you don’t need these specifically timed acts in place within the story. Pacing is essentially up to the storyteller. Episodes can also be the duration that they need to be to complete their narrative, rather than follow a strict timeline.

While liberating for the writer, and something different for the viewer, this freedom doesn’t mean that they should discount the need for distinct acts, or the need to continually place hooks into the storyline (Just because there are no ads, doesn’t mean people won’t switch off if they’re bored) but there is certainly more freedom allowed in the streaming world to set the pace of the episode.

The other obvious change is the number of episodes a season might contain. Players like HBO and Netflix have done away with the large twenty-two episode orders of network TV. They’re more likely to order ten episodes, but there are examples where there are only four or seven. This is resulting in programs with tighter narratives and story arcs across episodes. There are no ‘filler’ or ‘bottle’ episodes because production isn’t begotten to the tight deadlines of network TV (for the most part).

They Know What We’re Watching

Network TV has always had their ways of getting viewership numbers. They’re important — more viewers equal more advertisement revenue. The general way this has been done in the past has been to take a small slice of the population, record their watching habits and extrapolate over the entire population (I’m over-simplifying, as they now factor in chatter on social platforms, and news outlets, but my point is that it’s a calculation).

Streaming platforms, on the other hand, have a lot more precise data. They know EXACTLY what all of their subscribers are watching, giving them a lot better indication of what content is ‘vibing’ with audiences. They know the exact moments when viewership starts dropping off in a series or movie. They know that people can’t get enough crime shows, b-grade rom coms, & Christmas movies. While this isn’t necessarily affecting how this content is being created, it is dictating what is made in a more informed manner than ever before.

Diversity is Good

Remember when I mentioned that networks were beholden to their advertising partners? Well, that has constantly been a factor in creative decision making throughout television history. You want a gay couple to kiss or have sex in your series, but you’re worried the big wigs at your conservative major sponsor might take offense? Why don’t we just play it safe and make it a straight couple? Instead of having full-blown sex, what if was just some heavy petting? Advertisers have a moral obligation to their customers (well they don’t want to piss them off) so in turn, networks have to adhere to that to a certain extent as well

Online streaming platforms don’t have these conservative moral concerns thrust upon them, and I think the diversity in their lineups reflects that. The stories that are written for streaming can be as violent, expletive-ridden, and sexually diverse as wanted or required. I’m not saying that Netflix has no moral compass — they certainly do — but they have the freedom to be a lot more progressive in their storytelling, without the fear of backlash the networks have. It’s something HBO and some other cable companies have been doing for a couple of decades now, but on a much larger scale.

Short Form For Short Attention Spans

The children have spoken — Streamline that storyline! Younger audiences are wanting content in shorter, more action-packed bursts and platforms like Snapchat, Tic Tok, Quibi, and, to a lesser extent, Netflix, are responding. Scripted shows are being developed for these platforms at durations from just five minutes. Instead of being shot for the ultra-wide screens we all know and love, they’re being shot in portrait mode, bringing more new artistic decisions to the fore. We are not talking cheap, selfie recorded series here. These are big-budget, scripted short series, designed for the younger audiences on the go. Time will tell how large this medium grows and if it takes off with an older audience.

Future Trends

It will be interesting to see how future trends will continue to impact the scriptwriting process. While I’ve written about the new freedoms these streaming platforms have over networks, there is constant talk about bringing an advertising tier to these subscription-based services. Does that mean there will be a return to more formulaic timing to narratives to accommodate this and a more conservative approach to storytelling? I think that this progressive storytelling and ‘normalization’ of diversity we’re seeing is a very good thing, so I do hope not.

In any case, it is an exciting time for writers to be in. The demand for new content from all of these platforms is huge, and they are looking globally to find it. Time will tell if the new freedoms these streaming platforms are afforded, last.

This article was originally published here: https://medium.com/@peterwilson_39161/content-is-king-how-our-consumption-habits-are-affecting-the-way-content-is-crafted-a38a4dcdd7e4

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