Viewer Demands Driving Change in Television Programing Priorities

Previously, people would assemble in front of their televisions in living rooms to watch their favorite programs on a broadcaster-determined schedule in bite-sized chunks every week. The shows' stories and protagonists were what kept viewers interested during watching. Terrence Rafferty contends that viewing patterns are changing in line with the times because technology now dominates how most people watch television thanks to innovations like TiVo® and streaming services like Amazon®, Netflix®, etc. In his article, “New Twists for the TV Plot, as Viewer Habits Change”, Terrence Rafferty gives his opinion on which direction viewing habits of Americans may take and why. Rafferty asserts that TV viewing habits are changing because TV watchers currently have different expectations of the content of television programming and, in addition, technology is providing different platforms for viewing than in the past which is diversifying the viewing experience. Although the fate of television as an entertainment medium is uncertain, Terrence Rafferty, using a casual and personable tone, attempts to guide us through the ever-changing watching habits of today, using the appeals of logos and pathos, as well as the strategy of rebuttals to challenge our perceptions.

Rafferty, utilizing a tone which is casual and personable, begins his writing by appealing to logos as he explains the situation with TV viewing and how it is currently undergoing changes. Rafferty observes that what used to be perfectly acceptable to TV viewers, “big stars, some action and a mystery” (para. 2), is being rapidly replaced. Rafferty notes “In this era, when the audience (particularly the younger audience) watches TV in many different ways — weekly, time-shifted or binged, and on a variety of platforms, — viewers’ expectations have changed, and the medium has done all it can trying to keep up” (para. 3). As an example of what he means, Rafferty notes that viewers used to settle in in front of their television sets every week to watch shows like the Rockford Files, starring James Garner, “not much caring about whatever little crime Jim Rockford, Mr. Garner’s character, was leisurely investigating” (para. 4). However, currently, even the likes of stars like Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams are not enough to entice viewers to watch shows like “HBO’s True Detective” (Rafferty para. 4). Rafferty further appeals to logos quoting TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz who explains that, what Rafferty refers to as “plot-heaviness of 21st-century TV” (para. 5), is “a reaction to increased viewer sophistication — and impatience” and “It’s no longer about what happens, or how, or why, but when. You predict what’s coming and at which moment, you discover whether you called it right or wrong, and you go online to crow or eat crow” (qtd. in Rafferty, para. 6). This practice makes the goal of TV watching more of a game than what the producers and writers are striving to accomplish, that is, to make a quality TV show that has great characters, an interesting plot, and just enough mystery to keep you coming back for more.

Rafferty continues his analysis of how viewing habits are changing by appealing to pathos. He notes, rather sardonically, that ever since the “Twin Peaks” era some 25 years ago, dramas have been incorporating “soap opera elements” of which viewers are growing tired (para. 7). Rafferty further observes that “byzantine plots of shows like “True Detective,” “Humans,” “Mr. Robot” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” make the experience of following a narrative a test of sorts, and when viewers feel as if they’re failing — as they clearly did during Season 2 of “True Detective” — they get frustrated and, inevitably, angry.” (para. 7). Rafferty’s use of the phrases “byzantine plots” and “soap-opera elements”, and his mentioning of being “frustrated” and “angry”, are meant to stir an emotional response of irritation in the reader.

Further on in his article, Rafferty does an about face, of sorts, from his previous narrative and employs the rhetorical method of rebuttal. He questions the emphasis on plot in TV dramas with the observation that “while it’s nice to see television writers and directors trying to tell complex, ambitious stories in their once-humble medium, a certain level of narrative fatigue may be setting in” (para. 8). Continuing in rebuttal mode, Rafferty explains that “if the plot of a long-running series is a mystery, there’s a limit on how many episodes viewers can enjoy before solving the case” which points out the fact that the plot is important for the viewer and also that viewers are generally not satisfied if they are constantly left hanging about what’s actually happening in the series, or, as Rafferty puts it, “viewers get impatient and need closure” (para. 10). Rafferty also notes the strange way in which the American version of “The Killing” “frustrated viewers a few seasons ago by seemingly solving the show’s season-long mystery and then, perversely, undoing it and spending another season solving the murder all over again” (para. 10). The frustration people feel after they watch a particularly intricately woven web of plot and characters, only to realize that the episode did not add to their knowledge or satisfaction with the progress of the storyline, leaves them feeling unfulfilled.

Rafferty returns to a mix of the appeals of logos and pathos as he explains that new technologies and systems of delivery offer the viewers of drama a way to watch their favorite shows unfettered by the constraints of “old-fashioned episodic television” (para. 11). He writes that the releasing of an entire series onto a streaming service, like Netflix did in 2013 with its original series “House of Cards”, “offered a clever way around the discontents of long-form TV narrative” (para. 11). Rafferty goes on to explain that the problem with episodic television was the week’s lag between episodes tended to make viewers “forget all the pesky details” (para. 11) which detracted from their watching experience. To bring the audience into the story more, having entire seasons released at once means that “the story could be constructed with the beginning, middle and end of a traditional novel, rather than with the short-story techniques” (Rafferty para. 11) employed by episodic television. This technique of viewing a series without the interruptions, Rafferty refers to as “binge-watching” (para. 12). As Rafferty points out, changing the mode of viewing episodic television drama series is one of the ways in which the younger generation is changing the television viewing experience overall. This may lead to changes in mainstream television viewing as the younger generation starts to take their place as the controllers of the medium from the Generation-X and Baby Boomer generations.

Rafferty then moves back into a rebuttal mode when he points out that there is one genre of television program which defies the “binge-watching” movement that seems to be sweeping through the younger set. He notes that comedy programs “remain stubbornly episodic” (para. 14) and that even though “Netflix released all 13 episodes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” at once, there was no compelling reason to watch it all at once” (para.14). Bite-sized portions of comedy programming still seems to be the norm for viewers across the spectrum of television viewing because they lend themselves very well to short stints due to their decreased dependence on running plot lines. Rafferty makes the statement that perhaps binge-watching is the wave of the future for dramatic television but also notes that binge-watching on television may just continue to get “stranger and stranger until it goes away” (para. 16).

It is hard to imagine the future of television, even from the current perspective of the ever-growing digital market. Perhaps television, as a lot of us have known it over the years, will give way to technology and go the way of Betamax and VHS video, and DVD’s, and eventually meld into a digital conglomeration. The place that the once honored television set occupied in the living rooms of America may be replaced by a variety of mounted and non-mounted video screens which use the power of technology to entertain a new generation of viewers. However, it is clear that Terrence Rafferty feels that the evolution of dramatic, episodic, weekly television programming as one that is in flux, and may very well be on the decline, as technology provides varied opportunities for the viewing audience to personalize their watching experience.

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