Friday, January 16, 2009

Have DVDs ruined TV?

As I sit here, just about to throw in the third disc of season one of Mad Men, I wonder at the fact that, though I managed to be aware enough to catch all of season two and save it in my TiVo box, I refused to simply start watching at the beginning of that season without ever seeing season one.

The third season of Big Love starts on Sunday.  I feel the need to watch all of season two, which is hanging out in HBO On Demand, before the new season starts.

I remember a time when you could turn on the TV, notice a show and say, "hmm, I've heard about that, maybe I'll watch an episode."  And you could watch, and at least generally get what's going on, and end up getting into it, never really knowing what you missed in any earlier seasons.  Maybe they'd pop up on syndication and you'd get a sense of what was going on.  But it wasn't crucial.

Along came DVDs.  They're cheaper and more durable than VHS tapes.  They're lighter, making them easier to ship.  Suddenly you can easily rent movies by mail.  So what if we start putting entire seasons of television shows on DVD?  Would people buy them?  Or at least rent them?  How can we best utilize this capitalization opportunity?

I'm not sure what exactly it started with.  I seem to remember that when I first noticed television shows on DVD, it was shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos.  The shows that not everyone could access when it was originally aired because they didn't subscribe to the necessary premium channels.  Then they started putting what I would call "old favorites" on DVD.  The stuff that was doing really well in syndication, so obviously people enjoy "rewatching" them. Things like Friends, Frasier, or Seinfeld. Perhaps around the same time, entire DVD collections of various Britcoms would come out - I think at that time, BBC America was not part of the standard cable package, so again, it was shows that weren't available to all viewers.

After these DVDs began to really sell, and after Netflix started to take off, the TV networks hit upon the ultimate selling point.  What if they make the shows so complicated that it's not enjoyable to watch them if you don't know what happened in the prior seasons?  That's sort of what was already happening with the HBO and Showtime shows - which, by the way, were winning Emmys and Golden Globes left and right.  So maybe it's really the attempts to make high-quality television shows that can compete with the award-winning records of HBO and Showtime that increased the complexity of your average television show.  These shows can't just go episode by episode.  Can they?  Would it have been possible to write a show like Dexter, Mad Men, The Tudors, or any of the other shows available in neat, compact little episodes that don't depend on what happened before?  I think it would have.  I don't think I ever saw the first season of Buffy, and while the story line certainly carried over from episode to episode, you weren't completely lost.  Even The Sopranos wasn't necessarily impossible to follow if you happened upon it in the middle of a season.  I started watching in about the middle of season three.  I was none the worse for it.

DVDs have ruined the art of making a show that works in nice, compact episodes.  This includes sitcoms, which are inherently meant to work in single, compact episodes.  How many sitcoms can you think of that are on the air right now?  Certainly not nearly as many as there used to be.  And don't get me started with On Demand, which makes it possible to miss an episode, even if you don't have TiVo or another DVR, and still go back and catch what you missed if you weren't home that night.  Because, of course, you can't catch up on DVD until the season comes out, which is usually just before the new season.  Isn't that convenient?

I may be ranting, but I'm not sure I'd really want it any different.  I can't dispute the fact that because of this apparent shift in the landscape of television, the overall quality of the shows has increased dramatically.  I'm about to go enjoy one of them.  I think it will go nicely with a glass of wine and a cat in my lap.
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Bree said...

what do you think of Mad Men?! I'm dying to know!

PS Flight of the Conchords on DVD makes the whole thing worth it. ;)

kate said...

Being one of those people who don't subscribe to the fancy channels, I find Netflix to be one of the best applications of technology ever! Thanks to the dvd, I can see shows like Rome and the Tudors without having to wait for a chopped up, mutilated version on regular cable. Plus, having them on dvd compensates for my habit of forgetting to watch the shows I like.

Jenn said...

I am not really much of a TV person but occassionally I will get really into a show. The 3 that I really like are 24, Lost and NCIS. Aside from NCIS there is no way to begin watching any of these from the middle and have a clue what is going on. Additionally shows like 24 are specifically made to force you to watch the entire season from beginning to end, I'll even go on a limb and say from the first episode or there are things the viewer just wouldn't understand.

We have bought very few TV show DVDs over the years but Netflix is a wonderful little tool :) Hope you & S are enjoying Mad Men!

Bridgete said...

Bree - I LOVE Mad Men. I'm now 9 episodes in so I feel ready to actually talk about it. There's only 3 episodes per disc and I have the 1-at-a-time Netflix subscription, it's been really hard to wait! I just ran out wearing just a sweatshirt over my t-shirt and jeans in 13 degrees to try to beat the post office to the mailbox so I could send out the disc I just watched and get the next one ASAP. lol. The next one is the last disc of season one though and season two is waiting in my TiVo so it'll be much easier after this next one is done, lol.

I heard Flight of the Conchords is funny. But I have to evaluate whether I can add yet another show. I am still a law student, lol.

Kate - I'd been mostly using Netflix for movies because I do subscribe to the fancy channels, but that's only because I prefer spending my money on things I can do at home. As for the mutilated versions on regular cable, a lot of the HBO/Showtime shows don't even appear in that form so you'd really have no way to watch them. PS, I love The Tudors and loved Rome (I'm pretty sure HBO canceled it...).

Jenn - I will say that I'm into a lot more shows than I used to be, now that there's higher quality. Hence the TiVo box, otherwise I'd be tied to the TV and I just can't handle having the TV tell me whether or not I can go out (or study, lol). I agree with you regarding whether or not you can start any of those shows in the middle. I never started 24 and I watched Lost for a while but I didn't start at the beginning so I was, well...lost. I've never watched NCIS but I already have too many shows for a law student to be following so I'll take your word for it. But I will say that there are a few that are hanging on to the one episode at a time thing, stuff like CSI and such. But there are SO MANY other shows that you just can't watch if you don't know what's going on. =)

ginger said...

i love weeds on dvd! i don't get the fancy channels either so i'm happy with the dvd/tv mind-meld.

you have to see the first episode of buffy. rent the first season bridgete. ;)