The art of visual storytelling has evolved throughout history. Whether it be theatre, film, or television, each medium has its own set of unique restrictions and challenges when it comes to telling a story. For example, stage plays that happen in real-time are constrained to a small area of physical space. Movies must tell a robust story in a relatively short period of time. Television shows must coherently break down a story into small, individually consumable chunks. The advancement of technology has created a new way of telling stories: the Netflix series. These are shows that are created exclusively for online digital distribution, often independent of major television networks. This new media platform comes with its own set of unique advantages and challenges that must be mastered by the storyteller to create effective and impactful entertainment.
What is different about the Netflix series?
The Netflix series (or any digitally released show) has some distinct format changes that make it unique. Firstly, all of the episodes in a season are available at once. There is no wait time of a day or a week between pieces of the story. Viewers will predictably start at episode one, and watch the series in order. Next, there are no advertising breaks. The only interruptions occur between episodes, or whenever the viewer chooses to pause and take a break. Lastly, the episode lengths aren’t as restrictive. On television, episodes are either 22 minutes or 42 minutes, with only about a minute of leeway. Netflix series do not have to adhere to this strict timing, as there are no mandatory commercial breaks. Instead, episode lengths only have to be roughly 30 or 60 minutes long, with the possibility of variation between episodes.
How does this affect storytelling?
Despite the formatting changes, some Netflix series take almost the exact same episodic approach as conventional television, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In this light-hearted comedy series, it’s possible to watch any episode as a standalone piece and enjoy it, even if you haven’t seen the earlier episodes. This is more akin to standard television, where each episode needs to stand on its own to attract viewers who haven’t kept up with the show to prevent an audience drop-off as the show progresses. However, many other series decide to adjust their storytelling technique.
Netflix has popularized the practice of “binge-watching”, the habit of watching the majority or entirety of a TV show in one sitting. In the past, binge-watching was seen as something that losers with no friends do during summer vacation. However, the rise of easily accessible streaming services has solidified this habit as a quintessential millennial experience. Many Netflix series have kept this in mind when telling their stories. There is no need to review the plot every episode since episodes will definitely be viewed in order, which removes awkward expositional dialogue and allows the entire runtime to be devoted to furthering the story. There is also room for more detailed storytelling since there is less time between episode viewings. Instead of the creator wondering “Will the audience remember this detail from 5 weeks ago”, they’re usually dealing with a scenario where that episode was viewed 5 days ago or even 5 hours ago. Therefore, story elements can be organically introduced earlier in the series, avoiding the trap of being forced to introduce new elements/characters in the same episode where they become relevant.
Finally, there are differences in how episodes are paced and designed to keep the viewer interested. Television shows tend to follow the format of building up to commercial, introducing a small cliff-hanger to ensure the viewer returns, and resolving after commercial to begin the process all over again. Since Netflix series do not have commercial breaks, writers can’t fall back on this formula to maintain interest over the run time. Each episode must stand on its own merit, almost like a short film. Loose run times help in this pacing, allowing the editor to make a scene a minute or two longer if needed to deliver the narrative most effectively. These factors culminate in a new kind of storytelling, in which a series plays out like a long movie, a single entity, rather than a collection of individual episodes strung together. This is a new and unique experience in visual storytelling.
New medium means new problems
One may think that the Netflix series must be the optimal method of telling a story. After all, you don’t have to worry about restrictive run times, unnecessary breaks, or forgetful audiences. There’s more freedom in how you can choose to structure the narration. However, more freedom requires more responsibility and thought. Unrestricted running times require greater care in the editing room. It’s not simply a matter of trimming down an episode to 22 minutes, but one must review every minute of video to ensure its necessity. Each scene must be edited to ensure the flow and pacing of the episode and the series as a whole since episodes blend together into a single entity. A series I thought struggled in this aspect was Luke Cage. Scenes that were dialogue heavy tended to go on for a bit too long, and I felt the scenes could be just as effective if more had been left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, the episodes felt dragged down, and the editors may have benefited from a shorter run time to pressure them into tighter editing.
On the other hand, Stranger Things excelled in its pacing. Every scene felt relevant and important, and the plot always felt like it was making progress.
Another challenge in writing for a Netflix series is the audience. Television shows assume that there has been at least a week between episode viewings, and structure the narration accordingly. However, Netflix creators can’t exactly be sure how the audience will watch their show. Will they watch it all in one sitting, or watch one episode a day? Will they take a long break between binge-sessions or not? Ideally, a series should be watchable for the majority of ways the audience may choose to watch it. This affects the details of the plot. The Netflix season of Arrested Development, which began as a conventional TV show, had a hard time striking this balance. The season was quite ambitious, attempting to weave together the largely individual storylines of the large main cast. However, since the details of the story for the series and each episode could get quite dense, it can be difficult to decipher the overarching story along with many of the jokes if you didn’t legitimately binge-watch the show. This resulted in many more jokes that didn’t land for many viewers, in comparison to the television episodes, which made a point to consistently repeat its running jokes. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to predict how the storylines will interact (which is both brilliant and detrimental), so viewers can’t take cues from the show to determine which plot elements they should pay attention to and remember for later.
Meanwhile, the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer skillfully uses the platform to follow a criminal court case in immense detail. The evidence is presented chronologically as the documentary follows the defence team’s investigation and courtroom proceedings. Important information is repeated organically, as it is often brought up as the defence builds their case, and again in court. The length of the series gives plenty of time for all these details to be introduced gradually, giving the viewer time to apply the new information to develop their opinion of the case.
Will Netflix kill TV?
Writing a Netflix series presents unique and novel challenges for storytellers, but it seems like the optimal platform for viewers. It’s much cheaper than cable television, the library is extensive, and the viewer can choose to watch what they want when they want.
Will digital streaming replace TV? In my opinion, it’s unlikely to happen any time in the near future. Radio, thought to be rendered obsolete, is still going strong after the introduction of records, CDs, and MP3s. However, television won’t be the juggernaut of North American entertainment, as it’s being replaced by the internet as the go-to time waster. TV, like radio before it, will just occupy a new niche in entertainment culture.
The older generation of Gen X-ers and beyond are just used to how television works. Many choose to stick with what they know, instead of foraying into the unfamiliar world of digital streaming. Furthermore, TV is still extremely profitable, introducing a corporate motivation to keep television alive. An episode of Grey’s Anatomy brings in a whopping $2.75 million every half hour, and TV won’t die as long as it brings in money. Sure, it may not bring in as much money as used to, but the platform won’t disappear. Finally, there’s a human aspect. Sometimes, viewers just don’t want to bother with browsing a library and making a choice. Some days, I just want to sit down at the table with my reheated spaghetti and turn on a random channel to occupy my mind for 15 minutes. Just ‘cause. This is the same “just ‘cause” audience that tunes into KISS 92.5 despite having a smartphone will all their favourite songs that can be connected to the car speakers via Bluetooth. Sometimes, you don’t want to choose for yourself, and it is for these people that TV will be kept alive.