Roger Wolfson on How Streaming Has Changed TV Viewing (and Writing)

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Streaming television shows has obviously become commonplace in our world. The onset of a global pandemic has further established that habit in television viewers in 2020. Roger Wolfson, a TV writer for more than 20 years, says streaming has fundamentally changed television, both for viewers and writers. 

During the “old days” of television, broadcast networks were the goal of any television writer or show. That was the way to get in front of the most people, and earn the most money. Broadcast shows meant larger budgets, bigger writing staffs and producing the most episodes of television in a year. 

To appeal to a broadcast network meant providing topics that appealed to the most people. Doing so almost always meant making a procedural program. A “procedural,” in its most simple definition, means that each episode focuses on a case. So crime shows, hospital series, legal dramas – each thrives on one case per episode on broadcast TV. There could be overarching storylines or character development over seasons, but each episode is centered around a case, or at least a central problem with which characters must deal. 

So from “Hawaii 5-0” to “LA Law” to “ER” to the “Law & Order” series, the procedural is alive and well on broadcast television.  Landmark cable programs such as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” flipped the script to take a more complex view of a case or season-long struggles to essentially make 10- to 13-hour movies.  Each season of “The Wire” for example investigates one institution and its contributions and relationship to crime in Baltimore and the show has earned wide-spread praise for its new approach.

Cable television began what streaming has perfected.  “The Sopranos” or “The Wire” essentially deal with crime, albeit from different angles. Cable television did not need the number of viewers broadcast networks earned, but they did need critical mass, so although their approach to story telling was different, the show’s themes didn’t veer too far afield at first.

Today, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon can afford to take bigger risks. By producing (or buying) a huge library of programs, streaming services are increasingly provocative in their offerings. If a program can capture a niche audience – and even better defining and capturing that niche – a streaming service has done its job. So you’re finding supernatural and superhero content more than ever, along with many other niche-reaching forms of entertainment that would never succeed on broadcast television.

Writers must now think of season-long story arcs – and not a case-per-episode formula – to appeal to streaming audiences. Viewers would never sit for a 10-hour movie, but a 10-hour movie told in hour-long bites that viewers can stream in a day or weekend – that’s become a winning formula.

Streaming services are also providing an influx of less costly productions – such as stand-up comedy specials, reality TV, and/or game shows. By providing the widest possible array of entertainment options, these services are able to define themselves by capturing a niche, developing a new generation of television, or just by being provocative. Viewers have answered the call and writers have changed their overall targets as a result.