Following up on several previous posts about mediums and how mediums affect storytelling, I recently ran across an article that illustrates my claim that stories exist apart from the mediums we use to communicate them. From PCMag:
Just like soap opera characters wake up from years-long comas or return from beyond the grave, two cancelled daytime dramas are getting revived.
Prospect Park today announced that All My Children and One Life To Live will in fact get a second chance as the anchor programs on The Online Network (TOLN).
In a sense this development probably doesn’t even seem evolutionary, let alone revolutionary. And from the point of view of the end user it’s probably neither. You fire up whatever glowing screen you want to look at, you input a few commands, and voila: content. But consider what this means for television itself.
Soap operas as a type of storytelling were originally created for and defined by the medium of television. While there have always been serialized stories, and storytellers long ago wove various narrative threads in order to take advantage of context and contrast, the very term ‘soap opera’ speaks to a narrative form designed for and targeted at a predominately female, home-bound audience — the express purpose of which was introducing and selling brands of soap to that demographic.
Today, however, the fact that more women are working outside the home, and more content is available over the internet to anyone who is home during the day, means that soap operas — regardless of the products being advertised — can no longer draw a sufficiently large audience to sustain profitability when they are delivered via the medium of television. There’s nothing wrong with soap operas as a type of narrative, but as a product to be distributed by television that type of storytelling no longer makes good business sense.
That soap operas became synonymous with television is a measure of the success of both that storytelling form and the medium of delivery, but notice which one seems poised to survive over the long haul. Television has gone away from soap operas not because soap operas no longer work, but because they’re no longer economically viable on TV. As the internet and online content puts more and more pricing pressure on content production and distribution through television, that content has to do more to support the medium itself. Or rather, to draw eyeballs to the ads that support that medium, because TV can’t charge for the content directly.
So what is television doing to solve this problem? Well, a few days ago I found myself mindlessly flipping cable channels, hoping to find some content for my brain to latch onto. I didn’t care what it was, I didn’t even care if I’d seen it before, yet I still couldn’t find anything. The first seven channels I checked were all showing commercials at the exact same time, but it wasn’t the bottom or top of the hour. The eighth channel I landed on was showing an infomercial, but as I plowed on the ratio remained fairly consistent.
Out of any ten channels, at least seven or eight were showing commercials — and of those channels showing actual programs they were still showing on-screen advertisements over those programs. Ads for upcoming shows would zip across the bottom of the screen, or lean in from either side, blinking wildly and doing everything possible to distract me from the mind-numbing pablum I was trying to stare at in a slackjawed stupor. It was quite literally absurd — like going to a restaurant, finding only one or two entrees on a menu otherwise dominated by advertisements, then, after ordering, having the waiter keep bumping my fork as I tried to bring each bite to my mouth.
In one egregious yet utterly inevitable instance the on-screen bug that some stations use to perpetually identify themselves was augmented with text trumpeting the resumption of a series on that channel, and that text stayed on screen until the station went to commercial. It was at that point that I realized television as we’ve known it is already dead, it just hasn’t stopped twitching. (You get 20 minutes of commercials for every forty minutes of content. You probably cannot name another medium you tolerate that kind of constant intrusion from, assuming you still watch TV at all.)
As I’ve mentioned before, what people want more than anything is on-demand content. It’s no longer enough to produce a show and broadcast it to the masses. You have to make it available when each individual wants to watch it or you’re going to lose audience share. As soap operas did on TV. The internet, however, is designed to do just that. Digital televisions as devices are also designed to do that. Even tablet computers like the iPad, for all their touted utility, are little more than portable televisions perfectly positioned to display on-demand content.
What will be interesting is how the switch to on-demand content affects the soap opera as a form of storytelling. Will the pacing change? Will producers make individual narrative threads available so people can follow their favorite characters? Will on-demand soaps lead to changes in the cast or the overarching story based on feedback, sales and social networking? Soap operas have already gone down this road in various ways, but internet distribution may only accelerate the process.
— Mark Barrett
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