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It’s not TV…It’s Netflix

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

What am I watching? It’s the nature of the beast to find yourself in front of the television asking this very question. But usually when we ask we know exactly what we’re watching. It’s generally a comment on the poor quality of the programme we ended up watching or a realisation we drifted into something we didn’t choose to watch (like the time I accidentally turned over from The Terminator to Ordinary People and kept waiting for the robots to turn up). However, watching the Netflix series of Arrested Development, I found myself asking this question and genuinely not knowing.

‘Arrested Development’ delivered in one block.

I’ve grappled before with the question of whether content designed primarily for internet distribution can be considered television. When teaching media studies, I used to debate with students whether programmes that had all the characteristics of television but were being seen online-like the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner space jump-still qualified as TV. Since people are going to the internet to watch this content, on first impression it would seem not. But it’s the case with much television today that people will see it first-and often only-online. So is all the TV that is watched online disqualified too?

Impressive…but is it TV?

With internet content that originated online, you can argue it both ways. However, content that was previously a television programme but subsequently moved online should be a pretty clear cut case of television, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I saw the 15 30-minute episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix last Saturday night. The series, a revival of a Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s, heralds a new way of telling stories online, adopts a style based on how information is presented on internet devices and is fit-to-burst with points of reference from consuming media content via web technologies.

Flashbacks provided by Showstealer Pro!

It’s a lot to do with how the episodes are delivered to the viewer. Instead of 1 or more episodes broadcast once a week until the run is complete, Netflix make all episodes of the series available at once. Of course, this is a way of watching derived from the possibility of consuming TV series all at once that has arisen from DVD, on-demand services and internet file-sharing. But that was always an option not the primary port of call. The producers of Arrested Development have clearly identified the difference this makes to how viewers are likely to watch the series.

‘Arrested Development’…full stream ahead!

Each episode has been constructed in the knowledge that viewers are able to watch each of the instalments out of order and expect some gratification for watching the concurrently available episodes in their entirety. The full story of what happens is revealed fragment by fragment and at different stages of the series depending on which of the endless combinations of chronologies the viewer chooses. Whatever journey you take, you’ll encounter non-sequiturs which will eventually become comprehensible while what you’re seeing is clarifying an enigma in another later or earlier episode. However, this all assumes viewers will take advantage of the potential for viewing episodes in a random, non-chronological order. In the end, it’s the old Jurassic Park question; of course you can but should you?

TV from the Great Dark Period!

I’m guessing that most viewers wouldn’t know to watch the episodes piñata-style without having been told in advance. Pre-publicity made a big deal of the chronology-optional viewing pleasures, and we’ve been hearing about the revival for some time, but I’m not sure it would be most people’s natural inclination to watch the show like Tarantino storyboarding Pulp Fiction. Sure, Netflix’s catalogues of full series allow for cherry-picking episode highlights, but at the point of selection we’re still in the dark about what episodes these might be. Basically, watching through is as good a way as any of getting to the end.

Who’s story do you want to see first?

In its network TV days, Arrested Development made a big deal of what it meant to be on Fox, and the Netflix revival seems as keen on reminding viewers that it is now internet content. Flashbacks and cut-aways come in the form of online videos, hacked TV-rip software and Prezi-esque slideshows. At times we think we’re looking at the world through a camera only to find we’re looking through someone’s eyes at a webpage. Network TV is still there in the background, with spot-on sideswipes at CBS’ This Morning and NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the flow of US TV entertainment and news anymore, you feel like you’ve plucked what you’re watching from the annals of cyberspace.

Downton Empire or Boardwalk Abbey?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by Tom Steward


Downton or Boardwalk?


Mr. Bojangles (formerly ‘Managing Director Boris Manjangles’)


No. 2

Blind Alley

Londonshire (formerly ‘Great Britain’)





I am addressing you using your synergy name-an amalgamation of HBO and ITV-which despite sounding like a new strain of a sexually transmitted virus will undoubtedly become your company acronym once I have informed you of the synergistic possibilities between two of your flagship programmes. A scan by our patented synergy-finding computer application-or SY-FI CRAP for short-has detected a 110% probability (the machine was the creation of retired football managers) of synergy between HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and ITV’s Downton Abbey. SYNERGIES believes that although the former is an obscene and offbeat historical crime drama and the latter a gentle and safe period soap opera, their worlds are colliding in ways that can only be described as ‘pointless’, a synergy word meaning both ‘poised’ and ‘relentless’.


Both programmes have featured scenes in Ireland in the 1920s during the ‘troubles’ (Idea for Programme: ‘Aving a Bit of The Troubles/Frank Spencer travels back in time on magic roller-skates to Bloody Sunday). But rather than having such scenes to make it look like these programmes give a damn about the country and its history, the results of our scan show that they are prime opportunities for synergy. SY-FI CRAP has projected a scenario in which Downton’s chauffeur-turned-in-law-turned-resident Uncle Seamus Tom Branson discovers his long-lost brother-from-another-overrated-show, the IRA soldier-turned-slutty bodyguard Owen Slater, has been killed by gangsters in New York and delivered in a crate to his employers (further offence was caused by listing him as ‘UK Cargo’) and leaves for the U.S.A. to exact his revenge.


At SYNERGIES we understand that the process of synergisation should attempt as much as possible to preserve the unique identity of the synergees. Hence SY-FI CRAP recommends that Tom recruit the help of several doughy white middle-aged character actors in exacting his revenge and that they should be introduced as they are sweatily entering much younger women. It is further suggested that when the perpetrator Joe Massereti is found by Tom he is taking tea with an elderly British film star who camply disparages him for his race and class and makes facial movements that looks like she is being buffered on iplayer.


SYNERGIES applaud previous efforts by ITV to synergise Downton Abbey with other HBO series. It has not gone unnoticed by our researchers that the producers had been planning a crossover with prison drama Oz. Why else would the valet Bates have been kept in jail for so long unless it was for him to eventually volunteer for a cryogenic freezing experiment offered to prisoners by an American scientist (Triangular Synergy Prospect: The scientist is Norm from Cheers reprising his role as an unconvincing 1940s inventor in Forever Young) and be defrosted in a 1990s Baltimore high-security prison? SYNERGIES appreciates that it was only Ofcom’s enforced removal of a scene in which Bates was raped with a potato-masher by Noel Coward that prevented this merger.


The SYNERGIES family (the cloned specimens that power SY-FI CRAP’s artificial intelligence are technically relatives) know that Downton Abbey depends on the American market and that, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister of Synergy (‘Synister’) conglomerate media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Boardwalk Empire is a hit on British TV…at least for those who have sold their souls for Mad Men. These audiences must be synergised as soon as possible. Our survey says that this could be achieved by Boardwalk Empire having dancing chimney-sweeps become bootleggers rather than WWI veterans as well as posh Englishmen who don’t understand things not understanding flapjacks. Downton Abbey would need to re-cast Lady Grantham’s mother with Kathy Bates shouting raucously in a Southern drawl while her boobs hang loose in a t-shirt.


Those who resist the synergy movement, which at time of writing our statisticians rounded up to ‘the population of the earth’, may consider such a crossover detrimental to the integrity of each individual programme. To those who defy progress, I say remember those pioneers of TV synergy (or ‘TV-Gy’ not to be confused with the rating or the budget-conscious gay channel) who boldly cross-fertilised Inspector Morse and Masterchef to produce the policious hit series Pie in the Sky and economised by re-using cooking show credits sequences. Who could forget the genius producer who decided that CBS should try to sell CSI to the audience demographic for The Golden Girls and call it NCIS, a title which innovatively uses ‘anagriarism’ (a cross between ‘anagram’ and ‘plagiarism’) with the N standing for ‘nodding off’.


SYNERGIES awaits your response in all possible forms of media (including pigeon) simultaneously. We offer consultancy on a pro bono basis, which is a synergy word combining ‘prostitution’ and ‘bonus’.


Yours disingenuously,


Mr. Bojangles


(Synergy Date/Time Conversion: 2for1/1score/dozen)


Boardwalk or Downton?




Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m always surprised and impressed when I encounter Americans who adore Doctor Who. Surprised because it must have been such a pain to track down on TV that animosity would be a more natural response and impressed because they always seem to revere the qualities of the show that many British viewers have forgotten ever existed. But let’s go back in time. The BBC had wanted to sell Doctor Who to American television networks right from its inception. In fact, it was once touted as a replacement for CBS’ heavyweight science-fiction series The Twilight Zone. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans finally got a run of the show, thanks in large part to PBS purchasing a block of Tom Baker serials. However, the series was being shifted around the schedules so regularly and so routinely butchered by editors that it became difficult to follow or enjoy.

Doctor Who at US Customs

The Doctor and Friends fall foul of US Customs

Despite these viewing challenges, a fan culture emerged around Doctor Who in the US at this time. In the 1980s, the BBC and the producers of the show started actively courting American viewers; having an American companion in the series, organising US conventions and tours, and looking to the states for money for specials e.g. The Five Doctors. When the show was cancelled in Britain in 1989, it was American television that attempted to revive it. In 1996, a TV movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast by Fox with an eye to launching an American version of the programme. Roundly regarded as a failure critically, commercially and conceptually, it nonetheless laid many of the foundations for the show’s BBC revival in 2005, not least the still sacrilegious notion of The Doctor making out with his companions, which is virulent in the re-launched version of the programme.

 The export of post-2005 Doctor Who to America has been more straightforwardly successful. This is thanks to popular showings on BBC America, new episodes being bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, and interminable spin-off Torchwood being co-funded by US network Starz (formerly known as Starz!). Now we are in a situation where the first two episodes of the 2011 series are co-productions with BBC America set (as far as we can tell) in the American West and involving the White House.

From my own experience talking to Americans about Doctor Who it seems that the devoted cult following might have actually been consolidated by the patchy US scheduling of the series in the 1970s. As a seller in a second-hand bookshop in San Francisco said whilst handing to me a copy of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Autons ‘You had to want to see it’. It’s also striking to me how much the Americans I’ve spoken to treasure the ‘classic’ series (or, more accurately, Doctor Who before 2005) and seem resistant to it being reinvented for contemporary TV viewers. ‘I can’t watch it now’ said the shopkeeper ‘it’ll spoil the memory of me and my brother staying up late to catch it’. Again, there’s a sense that the obscure scheduling of the programme was part of the pleasure but it’s also clear that viewers had great emotional investment in those 1970s serials. Others I’ve spoken to seem nonplussed by the more recent series, even when recognising its achievements. ‘Yeah, it’s a smart show’ another interested party told me ‘but I miss the big scarves and those robots with the stalks’. It’s interesting that the Americans I’ve met light up when talking about those earlier serials but talk dispassionately about the latest episodes, even when their image of the series is sharper now than it was then.

Genesis of the Daleks

Floppy Scarves and Robots with Stalks

It’s doubly interesting to me, as I have this ‘American’ perspective on the series too (though less so now the wonderful Matt Smith and some very capable producers and writers have taken over), and surprising as I don’t really have much of a childhood attachment to the series, it’s just my opinion gained through watching the programme as an adult. This perspective on Doctor Who seems much more sophisticated to me than that of the hoards of British viewers who were happy to jettison the show’s past and fetishise the aspects of ‘New Who’ that were completely at odds with what made it great, the worst culprit being excess of emotion. It’s natural for Britons to be protective of such a remarkable part of our national culture and want to protect it from Americanisation, but given stateside attitudes to Doctor Who in comparison to ours, I do wonder sometimes.

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