TV Executives And The Connection Between Technology, Storytelling, And Spectacle

Given our conversations about SOPA and legacy media’s willingness (or lack thereof) to embrace the ways technology is changing the way we consume media, one of the things I was most interested in at the Television Critics Association press tour was the way executives from the networks talked about technology and how it’s affecting everything from ratings to storytelling. I have a piece on the Atlantic about the five biggest tech ideas at press tour, and FX’s John Landgraf, Fox’s Kevin Reilly, ABC’s Paul Lee, and Hulu’s Andy Forssell all deserve significant credit for creative thinking. I want to pull out one point, though, because I think it’s an important question without an easy answer:

If you want people to put television on their calendars, make television that’s worth the appointment—in every way.
Executive: Paul Lee, President, ABC Entertainment Group
Lee isn’t alone in recognizing this. But he was the executive of the press tour to point out that if you want people to plan their weeks around television shows, you have to give them not just can’t-miss plots but visual spectacles that they want to see on television screens, which have gotten larger and cheaper even as we’ve added multiple smaller screens. “I think part of that is we are taking risks and having fun and a lot of feature [movie] directors are attracted to that…that’s one of the reasons you saw Phillip Noyce” (the movie director who helmed two episodes of ABC’s Revenge and an upcoming episode of HBO’s Luck) “coming in. I think you’re going to see feature actors as well as directors.” The profusion of movie actors, such as Anjelica Huston on Smash, Josh Lucas on The Firm, and Dustin Hoffman on Luck, coming to the small screen in mid-season seems to be proving him right. It may not have worked for The Firm, which is floundering, but we’ll see how Smash and Luck do.

With notable exceptions like Avatar (which was also downloaded illegally with very high frequency), audiences seem at least somewhat resistant to the idea that there are things that simply must be seen on the big screen in theaters or on a decent-sized television, and that lose all their power when shrunk down to tablet, laptop, or phone size. Certainly, the skepticism of 3D, which I think is seen as a means of cash extraction rather than storytelling, is one indicator that it’s going to be tricky to sell folks on gimmicks. I’d absolutely argue that something like the Luck pilot, with its gorgeous color and heart-stopping horse races, is much better on a decent-sized television than on your phone at the gym. But if networks or studios are going to claim that something needs to be seen big, and seen in its time slot, and expect audiences to believe them, they have to have both the storytelling and the visual chops to back it up.