Image by Robert S. Donovan

Last week Jenny Davis posted a great critique of the position taken by Jessica Helfand, that on-demand TV is corrosive for both the attention of the viewers and the quality of the product. Aside from some nebulous concerns about viewers no longer being part of a viewing community as a result of being tied to a regular episodic schedule – and I add my voice to those who can say from personal experience that no community is lost as a result of this – Helfand holds that once viewers/consumers can pick and choose what elements of a narrative they want to consume, violence is done to the narrative integrity of shows. Additionally, she worries that the focus of narrative production is shifting to the technology through which stories are told – to “the box, or the screen” – rather than the stories themselves.

Jenny efficiently punctures these arguments, pointing out that waiting for an entire TV series to be completed and released as a collection requires patience and arguably provides a more immersive narrative experience (again, I can attest to this, given the month I spent this past summer utterly lost in the worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural; please do not mock my taste). Additionally, Jenny notes, when viewers can focus only on the aspects of shows that they enjoy the most, creators and writers can get a more explicit idea of what they’re doing right and what they aren’t.

I want to take this argument a step further, however, and argue that TV on-demand – and, by extension, narratives constructed within and mediated by new forms of technology – have the potential to not only result in richer forms of existing narratives but to expand the means available for telling different kinds of stories.

Discourse – the means by which a narrative is related – and story – the content of the narrative itself – are, like the digital and the physical, enmeshed and intertwined. They constitute a single reality – the story someone tells – but they have different properties and play different roles in the constitution of that reality. But because they are inextricably linked, the discourse – the form of the narrative – plays a huge role in determining not only how the story is told but the content that the story can contain. We can see a very simple example of this within novels, where the point of view in which the novel is written determines what information can reasonably be related to the reader, thereby affecting how the reader will understand and interpret the events of a story. A story told in first-person will be intensely bounded in terms of what the reader can know; they can know no more than the narrator themselves.

However, just as first-person confines what a story can do, it also allows for things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible: an intimate look at a central character, the feeling of getting to know that person on a profound level as the reader experiences the story through their eyes. First-person also more easily allows for stories to be told in stream-of-consciousness, making them flowing and almost dreamlike. It’s a tool like any other in the narrative toolbox, and we largely have the existence of the novel-as-discursive-form – and the technologies of cheap printing – to thank for it.

As far as episodic stories go, technology has arguably been the source of their success since advances in moveable type in the 19th century led to the explosion of the serial novel. Serial novels moved on to serial shows in the age of radio, and then to episodic TV shows as television became one of the most predominant forms of entertainment and information technology. Being able to tell stories in this way was significant; it enabled not only intense interest on the part of consumers but enabled unusual depth and length in mainstream fiction, as well as potentially – and even more unusual for a narrative – stories that don’t even really have an end, per se (ongoing daytime soap operas are probably one of the best examples of this).

So technology enables new discursive narrative forms, which lead to expansions not only in how narratives are consumed but in how they can be told in the first place. What does on-demand TV do? I think it’s honestly too early to say what the long-term effect on narrative might be, but if I can speculate for a moment, I would anticipate the possibility that if viewers are waiting until a show is complete and then watching the entire thing in a very short span of time, TV writers might be able to construct narratives within shows that are less discrete, largely self-contained packets of half-hour or hour-long plots and more stories that flow seamlessly into each other, like scenes of a film or chapters in a book rather than what we’re used to thinking of as episodes.

A few other expansions of narrative forms that technology has allowed for: the hypertext novel, which makes use of links to enable greater freedom in the linearity – or nonlinearity – of a story; machinima, which makes use of video games to produce cinematic narratives (a particularly successful example is the series Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles, which makes use of Halo: Combat Evolved); and the increasing number of good amateur short films on sites like Youtube (there are a number of excellently-produced fan films based on the game series Half Life, as well as one of my personal favorites, Eagles are Turning People into Horses).

In short, technologically-driven changes in how we consume narratives have the potential to not only improve the quality of existing common forms of narrative but to expand how we can tell stories in general. And I can’t help but think, given how things have worked in the past, that this is good – on balance – for stories and storytelling across the board.

But as Jenny concludes, the problem is still that existing measures for the success of shows – and, by extension, those narratives – are based on financial models that favor advertising over what viewers actually become invested in watching. I hold that changes in how we consume narratives are good for narratives. What will be even better is if we can figure out how to alter those models, and change how good storytelling and consumer investment in those stories are valued.