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TV, Plot and the Method of Consumption

Does the method of the consumption change the story and how it works? This is the seemingly simple question I find myself contemplating as I watch a number of contemporary episodic tv series. In particular, does consuming a series in a manner different and apart from its traditionally intended mode affect, break or distort the effect and function of the story?

So, to be specific MadMen is a cable broadcast TV series. It is created under the auspice of a clear intention to be delivered to and consumed by viewers in a rationed 1hr per week with seven days of spacing between doses.

However, as per my earlier post surveying my own viewing habits, I have never watched MadMen in this intended manner. I have consumed 4 seasons of MadMen over the course just one week per series - one episode per night and 2 on Saturday. This is clearly not how the show was primarily intended nor initially presented. The economic model of subscribers and advertising are premised on the spacing out of the show over 2-3 months. But is the narrative model of MadMen also reliant on the same spaced-out structure as business model?

In the 4th season of MadMen (and I should warn readers of impending Spoilers) the final 3 episodes potentially present an example of consecutive binge viewing clashing with the intended weekly viewing experience. In the final eps of MadMen S4, after spending most of the preceding season in a pseudo relationship with a mature intelligent female psychologist, Don Draper suddenly notices the attractiveness of his secretary, sleeps with her, takes her to LA with his family and proposes marriage to her. 

It all happens very fast. So fast that my most immediate reaction was incredulity. It seemed to me that the relationship was forced and not narratively justified; that the seeds of the relationship needed to be sown much earlier in the series, even that the plot line was a bastard-child tacked on to the end to produce a shake-and-bake ratings finale and internet talking point.

In truth I was not quite as dismayed as this implies - MadMen series 4 was enormously enjoyable. However there was a residue of feeling that the marriage proposal to the secretary was, as a plot line, forced and rushed.

However, expressing my concerns on the couch after viewing the season finale my partner pointed out the deceptively obvious - we had not watched the show as intended . The idea being that if we had had a week of downtime between episodes - those last 3 spread out over the better part of a month of real-time, the marriage proposal plot-line would perhaps Not feel as rushed and forced as it did. The real-time down-time between episodes is crucial to the plot. The stewing, contemplating, ruminating and water-cooler discussion time between episodes is perhaps crucial to the correct experience of the story.

This example prompts a range of questions about the relationship between the production and its mode of consumption. Inherent in this MadMen example is an assumption about how the show will be watched - an assumption that weekly broadcast is primary.

I think this is a deeply flawed assumption to make. If I can be forgiven for overt subjectivity I can say easily that virtually all my friends and colleagues have watched MadMen and none of them have watched it as a broadcast. As per my recent survey of my own viewing habits we must recognise that there is no longer hierarchy or singularity in viewing modes. Time shifted recording, DVD box sets, Download, Pay-per-view and Catchup streaming. All these modes defy the compulsory weekly down-time digesting structure. Moreover, these modes increasingly are being normalised as common consumption rather than exceptions to the norm. Even so far as a contemporary perception of broadcast as effectively just advertising and glorified trailers for the selling and promotion of DVDs sales and downloads.

The bottom line implications of such observation and parameters is the notion that narrative and its mode of consumption are nor independent but rather directly effect each other. An assumption about a singularity of viewing experience is a flawed assumption and if a narrative progression has been predicated on such an assumption inherent problems may unfold.

As modes of media consumption continue to diversify and operate in parallel rather than sequential delivery patterns, writers must be cognisant of this in constructing narrative experience. MadMen in this instance serves as one example where a misguided assumption of a broadcast consumption has hampered the experience for the multitudes who watch MadMen as a binge rather than a diet.


I have since read some writings on Jason Mittel’s superb site examining similar ideas. he comments:

“Boxed viewing can also prompt distinctive and even debilitating emotional affects, especially given the particular circumstances of spectatorship. Not only can the forced gaps of serialized distribution enable viewer speculation and contemplation, they can also help temper the level of emotional engagement. Many serialized programs use suspense and immersion to generate the desire for a viewer to keep watching, creating the binging impulse that many boxed viewers find so common and compelling; however, the distance from a story world can help dispel emotional intensity that threatens to overwhelm a binging viewer. For instance, I watched the first season DVD of Dexter in a 4-day binge, compelled by the twisty suspenseful narrative—while I loved the show, the intensity of imagery and disturbing scenes of emotionally scarred children was too much to take in over a short period of time, and has left me reluctant to continue onto the subsequent seasons. Today’s television storytellers need to create programs that remain compelling whether viewed in weekly broadcast installments or binged boxes, a distinct challenge that few shows have overcome.”

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