There’s been a bit of a theme as of late, with most of my recent posts dealing with cancellation and renewal and cliffhanger endings. So today we’re going to keep that rolling by taking a look at how the Netflix binge-watching trend has affected the development of TV versus the way things used to be in the past.
As I’m sure you well know, most TV shows exist in a sort of permanent hostage situation, where the future of the storyline is being held captive by advertisers who are threatening to kill it if they don’t get what they want. I say the advertisers because the networks are really just a middle man here; they provide an exhibition space for the show, but the advertisers are pretty much calling the shots, even if it’s very indirectly. If the advertisers feel they aren’t getting their money’s worth in terms of eyeballs on their ads, they’ll pull them and the show can no longer support itself. Then it’s curtains for our heroes, regardless of how far along they are in their quest.
What that used to mean is that serialized storytelling, arc-based or series-long, just wasn’t an option. You couldn’t afford to risk people missing an episode, getting lost in the storyline and tuning out (keep in mind it was almost impossible to get caught up back then). And there was never a guarantee you’d get to finish the storyline, anyway. As far as the industry of the past was concerned, people wanted their TV in bite-size, hour-long segments that they could watch each week at a predictable time. Another contributing factor was syndication; once a series reached a certain number of episodes (usually 100), it could be sold to local channels to fill air time, and basically earn the networks free money on something they already owned. Syndicated broadcasts were notorious for showing things out of order, so a serialized story just wasn’t an option. The closest they got at the time was soap operas, which had plots that moved at a snail’s pace and could be dropped at a moment’s notice, if need be. In situations where syndication wasn’t possible, episodes were sometimes destroyed, as infamously happened with the BBC and Doctor Who, because they just couldn’t fathom anyone caring about these shows in the future.
This usually made it okay for the shows to just end where they ended; there’s nothing climactic about the last episode of the original Star Trek. It’s not conclusive in any way at all, it’s just a regular episode (and not even a particularly good one). At best, it leaves you with the impression that our heroes are still out there somewhere adventuring, and we’re just not seeing it any more. Occasionally they would have some note of finality to them, if the show was ended on the producers’ terms, as Star Trek: The Next Generation was, but this was extremely rare (I can’t find a single non-Trek sci-fi example, actually). The Robinsons are still Lost in Space, and the Moon of Space: 1999 is still careening around the galaxy, as far as we know. It’s not that they ended on cliffhangers; they just didn’t end at all.
With the widespread adoption of VCRs and the sale/rental of home videos, however, things began to change. Old shows had value, and were no longer just destroyed. Cult series began to emerge, as fandoms built up around shows that had failed during their broadcast runs but now thrived on VHS (giving rise to the “direct to video” sequel, in some cases). Sci-fi in particular benefited from the boom in popularity brought by Star Wars around the same time, reviving a lot of old properties that might otherwise have been lost to time. But this is also about the time that cliffhangers became popular, in the wake of Dallas‘s famous “Who Shot JR?” season finale. What that really meant was that as shows transitioned from the open “we’re just stopping here” type of season ending to the cliffhanger, cancellation suddenly became worse than just not resolving the premise; it now meant ending shows mid-story.
The same sort of thing continued with DVDs, which were even cheaper and easier to produce, in turn allowing many of these less popular canceled shows to be brought back out for the first time in decades. But collected “box sets” of entire TV series were still expensive, even if they weren’t “a hundred VHS tapes” expensive. When Netflix emerged as a DVD rental service, it was suddenly possible to consume large amounts of old TV without breaking the bank. That only grew further as they introduced streaming video services, and Netflix became a repository for every old and canceled TV series from the 60’s to today, mostly because the rights to those were cheap. It was only when the studios and Netflix alike noticed just how much of this old TV was being consumed that they saw the profit potential here. There was more to it, though, as another trend emerged with it: binge watching. Netflix’s statistics noticed that when people did stream TV shows, they almost always watched the whole show all the way through in large chunks. And people who chose to do this also were careful not to get invested in shows without endings. If the show got canceled early, or ended on a frustrating cliffhanger, it was far less likely to be the subject of binge watching. After all, why sign yourself up for certain disappointment?
So the studios kind of realized what the problem was here, but they were unsure of what to do about it. In some cases, a lucky show that had ended long ago had managed to get a “reunion show” for a major anniversary, reuniting the actors in character and typically solving that premise at last (as was the case for Gilligan’s Island), making for a decently satisfying ending. This wasn’t always an option, however, as actors may have died in the interim, which is what happened with plans for a Lost in Space reunion. Others, like Star Trek or Firefly, had already had the good fortune of wrapping up the plots in actual theatrical films. No, the studios would have to look forward and consider this when making plans for other shows. Of course, that’s hardly stopped them from canceling shows on a cliffhanger (just ask Sarah Connor), but they have been a bit more cautious about it. Fringe, for example, was allowed to have a short wrap-up season to draw its arcs to a close, and Dollhouse, while on the fence for a long time, was given the benefit of the doubt and got a second season that let it reach a conclusion. Both of these even ended after Netflix was already getting popular. Other shows like Farscape managed a wrap-up miniseries in “The Peacekeeper Wars,” and while Stargate SG-1 did get canceled a little unexpectedly, the Ori plot was completed in a direct-to-video movie called “The Ark of Truth.” Heck, we’ve even had shows like Futurama that did get decent endings revived for a bit more finality.
With complex, serialized television in vogue at the moment, it’s likely that we’ll see less and less shows getting canceled without an ending as we move forward. I think this is one reason why Continuum is still in talks about a 4th season, even so many months after the 3rd ended; no one wants to leave the show with the cliffhanger it ended on unresolved, but it has to fit the budget. I’m hoping now that we’ll start to see a response that’s somewhere between “reunion show” and “Direct to DVD” followup, where essentially series finales will be specially produced for the sake of Netflix and other similar services, finally tying up plot threads that these canceled shows would otherwise have left hanging. Even older series are getting revived in attempts to complete their story arcs, like the rumors of a 3rd X-Files movie to bring the conspiracy to a close. For fans, this is probably the best thing that could have happened–binge watching enables more complex, deeper storytelling, and forces studios/networks to bring some kind of closure to the show if they want to continue making money off of it into the future. And isn’t all we really want, in the end, a little resolution?