Though it’s too early to know what will turn out to be the defining cultural experience of the twenty-twenties, I’d put my money on first hearing of an acclaimed television show from one of its devoted fans only after it’s already been on the air for months or even years, if not after its lamented cancellation. Part of this has to do with a change in quantity, laid out by television writer Warren Leight in the Vox video above: “There used to be 80 shows in a year. Now you’re up to 500, 550 shows in a year,” many of them created not for traditional broadcast networks but for newer, content-hungrier online streaming platforms. “For writers, it was good because it gave people entry.”
Writing for streaming, Leight explains, “you didn’t have to worry about commercial breaks” and their dramatic disruptions. Instead, “you get to write a different structure. Maybe it’s just an organic three-act structure to an hour.” And in shorter streaming seasons, “you could arc a story across eight episodes. You can go a little darker, you can go a little deeper.”
But “as the episode orders have shrunk,” says Leight’s colleague Julia Yorks, “what used to be 40 weeks of the year that you were working is now 20 weeks,” with an at-least-concomitant reduction in paychecks. Whatever its artistic shortcomings, the old “network model” guaranteed a certain degree of stability for those who wrote its shows — a stability disrupted by the age of streaming.
Hence the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, and the centrality to the WGA’s demands of improved residuals (that is, payments made for a production after its initial run) from streaming media. But the professionals interviewed for this video also express concerns about what happens to the shows themselves when their writing gets separated from their production, which has become increasingly common in recent years. On the likes of Law and Order or Friends, says Yorks, “your show was being filmed concurrently when you were in the writers’ room,” creating natural opportunities for continuous cross-disciplinary interaction and collaboration. We may live in a “golden age of television,” but left unchecked, the strain of this fragmentation, as well as the financial difficulties imposed on writers, could very well take the shine off of it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.