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Is bingeing the new black?
by Dick Hobbs
R ecently BBC4 has
the classic 1985
television drama Edge of
Darkness. Troy Kennedy
Martin masterfully captured the nuclear
paranoia of the era, at a time when the
Thatcher government was making a
virtue out of secrecy.
The idea that global forces were
casually trading in weapons-grade
material and we would not know
a thing about it until the big cloud
formed above our heads seemed
scarily plausible. When the only thing
that stood between us and doom was
a policeman played by the sadly late
but definitely wonderful Bob Peck was
some small crumb of comfort.
made in 1990, of the Michael Dobbs
novel. Each hour long episode was
shown on consecutive Sunday nights.
Remember that 24 years ago VHS
recorders were in common use, but
the vast majority of people watched
programmes as they were broadcast.
So an intelligent drama had to attract
its audience at the moment the first
transmission started and get them
involved in the plot.
No amount of enthusiasm from friends
and critics could get over this fact. You
could be told by all and sundry how
wonderful it was, but if you started
watching episode two you would have
no idea who these people were and
what was going on. So you would
switch off again, wondering what all
the fuss was about.
As I said, BBC4 has been
repeating the drama, on Monday
nights. But I have not been
watching it. Instead, I am allowing
it to accumulate on the good old
Sky+ box and, when I have time,
I will watch it at a time to suit me.
That will probably not be all in
one go, but maybe over two or
three consecutive evenings. Yes,
I acknowledge that will burn Eric
Clapton’s guitar riff into my brain
forever. This is not the only show I do this
to. I have the whole of the final
series of How I Met Your Mother
lined up ready to go but I have not
yet started. The good news is that
this one cannot really be spoiled: it
is reasonable to guess that it ends
with him meeting their mother.
Does anyone else do this? Stockpile
series that you then watch in a burst?
What television pundits call binge
viewing? I ask because David Grossman,
technology editor of BBC Newsnight,
posted an interesting and thought-
provoking article online recently. In
it, he argues that binge viewing can
make television drama better.
He references House of Cards. The
original was a four-part adaptation,
viewer. The Tunnel (another series I
saved until I could concentrate on
it) was particularly awful for recaps,
but at least with Sky+ you can spool
through at 30 times real speed.
Contrast, though, the 1990 House
of Cards with the 2013 American
remake. This was not made for a
broadcaster, it was made for Netflix.
And, crucially, all 13 episodes were
released at the same instant. Viewers
could, and did, download and watch it
in one go, often literally so.
I thought that would not happen, but
I am delighted that it did because it is
very good news for drama. It means
you can use each episode to tell its
part of the story. No time wasted on
recaps; no diversions into sub-plots
just so you have something that can
be wrapped up at the end of the
hour. It puts the power back into the
hands of the writer. In particular,
there is much less need for
interference from networks who are
more worried about how a show
will play in its timeslot, and what
happens around junctions and
commercial breaks to retain the
audience. The only thing that drama writers and
producers could do would be to make
each episode more self-contained.
You end up with a series of short
stories rather than a single narrative
arc. Nothing like as satisfactory. The
aim is for the lowest but one common
denominator: a show can be a hit if it
is marginally less bad than the other
offerings in its timeslot.
Or you do as all too many dramas do
today: start with what seems like 10
minutes of recap. That is dull and an
insult to the intelligence of the attentive
Indeed, if we think of drama as
an on-demand genre rather than
broadcast, we take away the
constraints of making each episode
an hour long (which might mean
42 or 48 minutes), with tension
points around breaks. If you get
rid of the hour-long block schedule
then, when you need 70 minutes to
tell that part of the story, go for it. 24
could actually run for 24 hours.
I still worry about how we will discover
new content if we do not have trusted
channels to tell us what we might like.
But if it means we get more intelligent,
rich, engaging drama then I am
definitely up for it.
David Grossman started his article “I
used to think that TV was in a slow
death spiral. Now I think its best days
are yet to come.” That would
98 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE: ISSUE 92 AUGUST 2014