Scripted television is in the process of adapting to survive an ever changing entertainment arena. The gap between the viewer and the product is shrinking, and to remain financially viable television needs to keep audiences engaged. But how?
Social media is in a sense a blessing and a curse for “traditional” TV shows. On the positive front, various platforms allow a new level of audience engagement (more on that later).
On the other hand, a penchant for live videos has made many viewers watch fewer scripted shows, clicking on videos instead. Vlogger numbers are showing people, especially the younger demographic, love the immediacy of platforms like YouTube and Instagram—meaning social media has become both supporter, and competitor.
Social media allows audiences to become emotionally engaged with characters, storylines, actors, or all of the above: think fans, stans, and ships. (FYI shipping means wanting characters in a romantic relationship.)
If a story arc takes an unpopular turn or a ship is “sunk” (ie characters are romantically matched with other people) the ratings backlash can be vicious. Audiences today are emotionally involved, as well as feeling more entitled in terms of having an impact on storylines.
Much of scripted television is pre-produced so adjusting the plot (before the next season) is problematic. More TV shows are taking feedback into account and adjusting scripts while in production: not so much major plots, but subplots, character popularity, and subsequent allocation of screentime.
This is called fan service and (obviously) the industry has a mixed view of the process, as it means relinquishing some control of the script direction. In reality, taking audience reactions into account makes sense; just a subplot change can mean the difference between cancellation and renewal, especially as many networks no longer allow time for a show to find its feet.
Some web series’ have experimented with interactive viewing, a little like Choose Your Own Adventure books of the past. The idea is to shoot the next episode with plot changes based on feedback (similar in a way to reality shows and their “voting” systems). Perhaps this is worth considering, even if it requires changes to the current standard production model?
Likewise, the ever-growing popularity of fan fiction has shown people love offshoot stories and often can’t get enough of a particular (and sometimes minor) character. Rather than creating entire shows—spin-offs are risky business—why not follow the short form path of fan fiction, and produce a series of specials, whether one episode, or five, concentrating on these characters? The current TV format doesn’t fully utilise cast popularity. (I know this is done with webisodes, but the drop in production quality is the problem: people need to see the same style of shooting/editing that they see in the original series.)
A recent trend is dropping full seasons of a show for “binge” watching. This draws large numbers in the initial period, but ongoing engagement is lost. Shows that release one episode a week benefit from bloggers and recappers who are likely to cover a season of a binge show in a single post.
Yes, audiences desire immediacy, but they also have short attention spans, so without constant reminders of a series, interest can plummet. I wonder if statistically the second season of a show dropped en bulke performs as well as the second season of a weekly series?
Another relevant aspect is, of course, profit, and the integration of marketing. Advertising is a necessary source of income, and with the “commercial break” becoming less tolerated, those streaming scripted TV shows have had to become cleverer when it comes to pushing merchandise.
Product placement is a classic advertising option. In the past it had to be subtle, but in today’s tech-savvy market, social media celebrities push products as they don’t have a network structure to rely on advertorially, meaning the younger demographic likely find promotion less offensive.
What if instead of inserting commercials, or trying to work a few products into the scenes of scripted TV shows, most of the props and costuming were available to purchase? Consider a streaming platform that included links for viewers: if a dress, a chair, or a lipgloss appealed, the viewer could swipe, and have a purchase window/link pop open. Wouldn’t that be a less invasive form of advertising, since these elements have to appear anyway?