© Photo by Nik on Unsplash
The way we watch movies and TV shows has changed greatly over the past decade. As writers across the pond go on strike and a frightening number of people seem fine with the prospect of AI-generated scripts, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what has changed and where we might be headed.
Last Saturday, I watched the Eurovision final, as many of you reading this probably did as well.
Now, let me preface this by saying that I'm certainly not the biggest Eurovision fan you'll ever meet. In fact, for most of my life, I couldn't have cared less about it. However, in recent years, I've started tuning in to the grand finals and while previous editions still didn't manage to get me fully hooked, I have nothing but praise for the 2023 grand final in Liverpool.
Besides some genuinely great performances and a superb production, I found myself rediscovering a joy that I had not experienced in a long time. Eurovision is a live event, broadcast simultaneously across Europe and other parts of the world. This means that there was a discourse taking place as it was happening: Some of my colleagues here at RTL Today provided a lovely ticker commentary throughout the evening and twitter was also filled with all sorts of reactions and discussions.
To some, this may seem like the world's most mundane observation. But being part of the generation that I am, this is just not how most of us watch TV anymore – and it does raise some interesting questions regarding the future of video entertainment.
Are you still watching?
These days, if you're watching a TV show, odds are that you're doing it on a streaming platform. I vividly remember when Netflix was first launched in Europe, and the notion of accessing thousands of movies and TV shows from a single platform seemed almost absurd to us at the time.
But Netflix did not just change how we access films and series, it also changed the way we watch them. With full seasons dropping all at once, people quickly found themselves staying up all night to watch 20 or more episodes back-to-back, a habit which has surely never led to any negative mental health consequences ever.
I should note that, of course, binge-watching existed prior to Netflix's rise to prominence. I personally still have fond memories of purchasing bulky DVD sets and watching several seasons of shows like Fringe, Breaking Bad, or Smallville on my trusty portable DVD player during train journeys to summer holiday destinations.
However, while binging used to be something you did occasionally, the advent of streaming services meant that it gradually became the norm.
The result was that watching a movie or TV show became an increasingly isolated activity. To this day, it is something you do mostly at home, at your own pace. And while that can be nice, it also means that our collective viewing habits are completely out of sync.
Watching the Eurovision final last Saturday and following everyone's live reactions to the same thing I was watching reminded me of that sense of community we've lost a bit due to an overreliance on video-on-demand (VOD).
It also brought back memories of how one of my best friends and I used to be obsessed with this show called Mentalist, in which Simon Baker plays a sleazy psychic turned consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation after his wife and child are murdered by a serial killer. Back then, the only way to watch the show was by catching the latest episode on cable TV and whenever a new one was broadcast, it was sometimes all we talked about for the following week.
Nowadays, the closest I can get to that experience is if a friend starts a new show and recommends it to me after watching a few episodes, giving me a chance to catch up fairly quickly. But even then, we might still end up watching the show at vastly different speeds, making it very difficult to discuss it in an enjoyable way.
Golden calves and strikes
I believe that this shift in the way we consume entertainment media is not just the result of cultural changes and the internet becoming the main form of communication. It also has to do with the commodification of popular culture in particular.
As some of you may have heard, across the Atlantic screenwriters represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are currently on strike to demand better working conditions.
While some brush this off as just a group of privileged people complaining from their ivory towers, the reality is that screenwriters have met the same fate as so many other employees over the past 15-20 years.
As the economic system does what it was designed to do, i.e., concentrate enormous amounts of wealth among an increasingly small group of people, top executives relentlessly follow the dogma of endless profit maximisation.
In the video entertainment industry this has led, among other things, to shrinking writers' rooms and widespread job insecurity.
Streaming platforms in particular have become a golden calf for studio execs, as writers often receive no share of the profits generated by their successful shows. This stands in stark contrast to network TV writers who, through labour action and strikes, secured the right to be compensated every time a show re-airs in syndication.
All of this is a sign of the commodification of this art form: Movies and shows are not judged by their cultural impact or critical success, but rather by how much money they make in as little time as possible.
In the past, showrunners sometimes ran the risk of being forced to do way more seasons than they intended (looking at you Lost). Nowadays, people are hesitant to get invested in a new show because there's a good chance it will get axed after just one or two seasons.
Power to the writers
It's worth thinking about these things and asking ourselves where we personally stand in all of this. While I have no doubt that VOD and streaming will remain the dominant forms of video consumption, I do wonder whether it would not be worth returning to a weekly release model for new TV shows in particular. Shows like The White Lotus have already proven that this model can be very successful, even in the age of streaming.
When it comes to the commodification aspect, I feel that anyone who enjoys any form of media entertainment needs to be adamant in their support of creative workers. They are the ones who make all of it possible and, most importantly, enjoyable, and worker solidarity is in the best interest of the vast majority of us.
There are some interesting developments on that front, including Artists Equity, a production company based on a worker-first profit-sharing system and founded by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
In any case, I don't know about you, but I don't want to even imagine living in a world where all the media that is available is nothing but badly plagiarised shows spat out by a corporate AI "precisely calibrated for human enjoyment."
As I discussed in a previous op-ed, it is not so much about IF AI could write a full TV show, but more about whether that's even something we would want AI to do. AI – as it exists right now – cannot tell stories. All it can do is rip off already existing stories from humans and try to guess an acceptable word order.
Art is an almost magical way for humans to share aspects of our inner universes with each other and the beautiful thing about, say, a TV drama that's released weekly, is that we can partake in this synergy of emotions simultaneously with others.
But for that to work, the creative industry needs to be led by the only people who can: the creatives.