Dennis Broe outlines the thesis of his new book, Birth of the Binge, about the way the television series has developed more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of manipulating viewing habits, preparing some sections of the working class for digitally advanced jobs, and others for the drudge sectors of the service industries.
AT&T is moving big-time into the streaming service game, and as it does it is bringing with it a ruthlessness not previously seen, even in the annals of corporate television. Witness this now infamous exchange between the conservative Texas-based company representative John Stankey, now chief executive of Warners after the merger of the two companies, and then HBO chief executive Richard Plepler. It began by Stankey urging “stepped-up investment” in the jewel of Warner’s television and Plepler applauding him. But the interchange turned sour when Stankey then interjected, “Also, we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?” followed by his commanding the station, which supposedly helped begat the new Golden Age of Television, to dilute its product to reach a wider audience.
Disney, now completing its merger with Fox, plus Hulu, Apple, and Facebook are all in or about to enter the streaming service fray, to challenge Netflix and Amazon. New forms and distribution patterns of television, largely driven by the thirst for serial TV series, are pointing the way to novel and unexplored realms of narrative sophistication that may include more topics of social relevance in the series but also because the potential profits call for levels of addiction, and for increased monitoring, that in some ways dictate the construction of these narrative patterns.
My book Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure details these contradictory impulses in the development of the serial TV series over the last three decades.
Streaming television has been seen as a radical means of putting power in the hands of the consumer, giving them a new autonomy so they can watch when and what they want, and are no longer captives of the minimal choices available from the television networks. Series, in this interpretation, are now tailored to individual viewers who mix and match and become their own programmers. The form of these new series is generally more narratively sophisticated as well, as season arcs which require viewers to track the series much more actively replace the one-and-done self-contained episode which is perpetually recommencing from the beginning.
That is the hype from the industry, and surprisingly from many television studies scholars as well. A look at the actual process though dispels many of these myths. This new wrinkle in the television industry is part of a general pattern of what French digital philosopher Bernard Stiegler terms hyperindustrialism, that is, the old ruthless patterns of accumulation are continued and advanced in the digital age of which streaming television is a part. Rather than decentralized modes of production, the streaming age is now featuring ever more tightly concentrated conglomerates as the recent wave of mergers indicates. Thus, content providers are merging as in Disney and Fox or production studios are merging with internet providers to monopolize traffic into the home – as in Time Warner and AT&T – or networks are merging with cable providers who then purchase satellite services, as in Comcast’s purchase of NBC and subsequent acquiring of a majority share in Europe’s leading dish service Sky-TV.
The leaders in this field, Netflix and Amazon, in line with what Shoshana Zabuf terms surveillance capitalism employ algorithms for tracking audiences’ every movement on the service and then turning that data into programs based not on quality or need but on these advanced metrics. There is a homogeneity in these targeted demographics that makes the traditional network programmers look like members of the most experimental avant-garde.
Girlboss New Girl
Thus on Netflix for example, there is the recently departed Girlboss (2017) – “She’s saucy, sassy” – and so was Zooey Deschanel six years earlier when the Netflix show’s prototype New Girl (2011–) first appeared. The Expanse (2015–) is warmed-over Battlestar Galactica with much less at stake than the fate of the galaxy and shorn of the 9/11 references. Stranger Things, with its children’s investigation of alien creatures, recalls E.T. (1982), The Goonies (1985), and with its focus on 1980s technology, Super 8 (2011). Sense8 (2015–17), with its multiple characters in a utopian futurist setting, is Cloud Atlas (2012) remade for streaming. Finally, Frontier (2016–), with fur traders in a bloody and savage wilderness, is The Revenant (2015), complete with its lead character in Leonardo DiCaprio pose, in series publicity.
The Revenant Frontier
The supposedly happy consumers of these new modes of distribution who can at last watch what they want when they want it are instead more likely, in the wake of the Great Recession in which this mode came to prominence, harassed, harried workers who are running from one job to another, then to school, and finally to a frantic moment or two not of leisure but of leisurality, a condition which makes a mockery of the old forms of workers’ gains before they were systematically wrenched away in the neo-liberal era and whose marker in the Great Recession was “the staycation.”
Workers in both industry and critical parlance though are only discussed as consumers, happy to be enjoying these new freedoms. What was formerly called prime-time TV, the family hours of 8 to 11 pm that marked the break in the Fordist era from factory production to leisure has now been replaced by a non-stop economy that Jonathan Crary terms “24/7”. Streaming TV providers, rather than promoting a new form of entertainment utopia, have made television available “on the go” as workers grab frantic minutes between engagements by watching on their mobile phones. These new forms of viewing are also offered by capital as a compensation for unmet needs. As the costs of health and education have increased 20 to 40 percent in in the period of the Great Recession and its aftermath, synonymous with the Golden Era of Serial TV, the costs of cell phones, toys, mobile accessories, computers and televisions have fallen 40 to 100 percent.
Finally the form has engaged its viewers using narrative devices – cliffhangers, sudden demise of characters, multiple characters and stories – that foster a new form of addiction that goes by the name of binge-watching, where viewers boast not of what they have seen but of the fact that they have watched entire seasons or series over the non-stop course of a weekend. Endurance now substitutes for pleasure.
These new modes of viewing where the sophistication of the storytelling is increased along with the drive to watch the next episode are also being employed, along with video games and the construction of commercial online communities, either to ready workers for the cognitive challenges of new, more digitally advanced jobs or, depending often on the class level of the viewer, to neuter them for zombification in the drudge areas of the service industry.
Nevertheless, there are a number of hard-fought gains that serial TV has won. First is a vanquishing of one the most dreary forms of television designed only with the bottom line in mind, reality TV, which a decade ago was still the dominant and which is now replaced with shows with narrative cohesion where the social environment, or storyworld, features prominently in the show’s construction and appeal. There is also a new veneration of the writer, the showrunner, always dominant in television but often unacknowledged.
Boyd and Raylon in Justified
In addition, the best of these series may critique the offline world that the series’ mode of distribution and narrative construction is attempting to efface. Thus, one of the great moments of Serial TV, the second season of the series about Appalachia Justified, builds its season arc around the dispossession of Harlan Country communities by a mining and energy company. The lead character, the federal marshal Raylon Givens, engages in truth-telling about the strip mining that will destroy the community as his doppelganger, the violent but brilliant Boyd Crowder, becomes a gun thug for the mining company.
The female company rep, who is from the area, wants to sleep with Raylon who refuses telling her “you know who you are.” The leader of the community, Mags Bennett – the always engaging Margo Martindale – at first defends the farmers, then sells them out to the company. The community members then start referring to her as Benedict, as in the Revolutionary war traitor, rather than Bennett, and her plan to leave the hollow, the valley, results in the extinguishing of her clan and her tragic Shakespearean death as she poisons herself with her own moonshine.
Birth of the Binge highlights these contradictions in describing not only this new mode of production and distribution but also through readings of key series in this period, including Silicon Valley, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orange is the New Black. The book also functions as a reference work which charts this three-decade development and incudes a list of “100 Seminal Serial Series” and an index of the 160 series mentioned. Its project is to link the television series to its moment in the development of new more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of harvesting viewer habits and intentions.
Birth of the Binge is available here.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.