Novel television

I was having a conversation with my cousin, who works in film and television production, about the difference between working on a TV show intended for broadcast, and one intended for internet distribution. It turns out they are quite different.

When you work on a show intended for broadcast, you need to produce a finished episode each week. Even as each finished episode goes out on the network to be seen by the public, your crew is already working on later episodes of the season.

But when you create a show intended for internet distribution (eg: a show commissioned by Netflix), you generally deliver the finished season all at once. Audiences are then free to watch one episode at a time, or to binge the entire season. It’s entirely up to them.

This means that up until the moment you deliver the finished season, you always have the possibility to go back and modify earlier episodes. My cousin tells me that in some cases, the show runners realize that a character arc needs to be adjusted, or an extra shot needs to be inserted in an earlier episode to help clarify something seen in a later episode.

In extreme cases, they can even decide, late in the production schedule, to add a new character. In that case they can shoot and then insert new scenes between that character and the show’s principal characters, to distribute into multiple past episodes of the season.

This greater freedom to go back and tinker allows creators to make decisions based not just on the script as written, but also on discoveries made in the course of production itself. The process is less like writing a diary, and more like writing a novel.

There was a time when nobody except Joss Whedon could produce long form commercial episodic television with the character depth, resonant overlapping story arcs and meaningful psychological growth that we associate with novels. Thanks to internet distribution, such things can now also be accomplished by mere mortals — albeit very talented mortals.

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