Are you still watching?

Julia Uryga, Lancaster University

Not long ago, television still had its invincible position in the very centre of our culture. Gathering around 40 million people in front of the ‘silver screens’ following not only current affairs but simply the series’ episodes. Such a medium has allowed people to encounter the world through the shared experience of viewing, happening simultaneously for everyone. Yet, we’re now entering the post-television era, combining both film, television and the shifting perception of participation brought by the growing influence of digital media. How does such a streaming revolution influence the entertainment industry and its viewers?

HBO effect

It was HBO that marked the new television era and cleared the path for streaming platforms. This was done through the performance of actions which operated on a radically different economic model than network television. Stating ‘It’s not a television, it’s HBO,’ this premium television network desired to ensure that it is much more than just a regular television. It wanted to provoke, engage and create a cinema experience within one’s own home. When putting aside advertisement and introducing the subscription fee, the company doesn’t need to keep its advertisers happy. As a pay-network that earns its revenue from subscription rather than selling spots to advertisers, HBO does not have to tailor the content of its programming to please everybody, allowing writers to contribute better to shows’ narrative distinctions. It has introduced a platform for a new kind of television in which, with its original productions, it produces films, attracting well-known creators. Hence, both are creating an appealing offer to its audience and challenging the perception of ‘good TV/film.’

 

TV’s migration to the toilet

Television content then becomes more inclusive, while producers try to move away from ‘typical’ standards and values through the embracement of diversity, highlighting controversy and mocking stereotypes. One of the changes noticed is how TV is funded and produced as the increasing commercialisation of public service broadcasting led to the deregulation and changes in media ownership rules along with multinational conglomerates and media convergence. Advertisers often rely on the ability to monitor consumers. Today, TV requires higher spending than it did in the network era and ad-supported TV programming may not seek a future in the world of video-on-demand, pay-per-view and subscription television. When people are attached to the programme and not to a particular channel, then become more program- instead of channel-driven. 

On the other hand, the changes in TV distribution are caused by technological developments in screen design, along with the rise of television apps, multichannel cable, global satellite and digital TV. Major companies have launched services of their own such as, Disney+ or HBO Max, which will offer powerhouse programming for everyone by bringing together HBO, key third-party licensed programmes and works from Warner Media’s library. Such services are not only the major competitor for cable television but also a source of growing tension among the streaming platforms themselves. 

The creation of taste-based algorithms permits platforms to gather data on what you previously viewed. These platforms are exclusive importers of shows from all over the world, creating opportunities for global audiences to access local productions. On Netflix, we can observe astonishing successes of series such as German ‘Dark,’ French ‘Marseille’ or Spanish ‘La casa de papel.’ Although Netflix’s streaming revolution had a slow start in Poland, to suggest, acted as a result of lacking Polish titles. Shows such as ‘1983,’ or The Witcher, an American adaptation of Sapkowski’s book series that managed to become the second most popular Netflix show in 2019, are great examples of Poland becoming increasingly friendly with opportunities given by streaming. 

Today ‘watching’ has become more time- and place-shifted. It has physically migrated out of the domestic living room and is now integrated into bedrooms, cars, offices and toilets. This empowers the perception that TV can be streamed and viewed anywhere. TV is also closely related to the concept of community, which is about gathering people with shared interests, even those geographically disparate. Although the laptop screen replaces the TV screen, television fundamentally continues to remain a cultural experience. The definition and mission of television have attracted change and is no longer limited to only ‘regular’ shows and series but films and its own critically acclaimed productions.

 

Is Netflix killing the cinema?

Considering its diverse audience, Netflix can be sure that its original productions will be widely watched and commented on even without reaching worldwide success. The platform gives a chance to many productions that would not normally be capable of achieving success in the cinema. This is because the artistic cinema still has to fight for the viewer. However, it doesn’t mean that such productions never reach the big screens as Netflix often releases its potential award candidates in theatres first, with ‘Roma’ having its premiere at 2018 Venice International Film Festival. However, cinema distribution is still usually the main way for films with large budgets to be able to pay back. 

Yet, an additional channel of distribution in the form of online platforms certainly promotes the distribution of more original cinema, making it even more exclusive. Although Steven Spielberg once said that productions of streaming platforms don’t deserve an Academy Awards nomination as ‘Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.’ Since Netflix started to distribute its ‘originals,’ the industry has been concerned whether such films deserve the same recognition as traditional, theatrically released films. Yet, the fact that Netflix’s productions received 24 nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards, underlines its growing impact within the cinematic world that cannot be misjudged by filmmakers. 

Media continues to change because we change. People communicate, entertain and process information differently, and television has been transformed radically since its broadcast in the 1950s. TV entertainment has evolved in order to take users’ participation in the heart of TV programming and try to adapt the cinematic experience to modern times. Since launching new online services, the entertainment industry aims to create successful narratives which are further supported by storytelling and valuable content specifically modified for highly diverse audiences. Entertainment companies take care of providing the subject matter, which not only entertains but also educates and informs of global issues. 

Though the ways in which we experience cinema, television and streamed productions are changing, it cannot be said that cinematic magic and companionship of TV are disappearing from the public mind. Despite the often-limited budget especially for studio cinemas, it is still entertainment that people want to gasp and adventure that they want to immerse themselves into. Simply saying, the ability to watch a film on small screens should not threaten the cinema more than the possibility of eating a meal at home threatens restaurants. It is not the end of the ‘traditional’ moving image era. It is just the beginning of something new and big that shapes our passion and fascination of the cinematographic world much further. In short - yes, we are still watching, will be and want to watch even more.