How technology and business models shape what TV shows look like

【双语】媒介与讯息 Medium and message-书迷号

“LES AMOURS de la reine Élisabeth” (The Loves of Queen Elizabeth), starring Sarah Bernhardt, had four acts. So do many dramas—but in this case the narrative arc was partly dictated by pedestrian concerns. When the film opened in New York’s Lyceum theatre in 1912 it came in four reels. Projector operators needed intervals to switch from one to the next. In the past century technology and business models have helped shape the message in moving pictures—nowhere more so than in television. Online streaming is no different.

由萨拉·伯恩哈特(Sarah Bernhardt)主演的《伊丽莎白女王情事》有四幕。许多戏剧也是如此。但这部影片之所以会有这样的叙事结构,一定程度上却是由很庸常乏味的因素决定的。1912年它在纽约的吕克昂剧院上映时有四卷胶片,放映员从一卷换到下一卷会使得播映中断一小会儿。在过去的一个世纪里,技术和商业模式帮助塑造了移动影像的内容,尤其是电视。在网上看剧也不例外。

As TV conquered Western homes in the 1950s shows came in two main durations: half-an-hour and an hour. In America this gave producers 20-odd or 40-odd minutes to play with after setting aside time for ads; of the 173 episodes of “Seinfeld”, a sitcom that ran from 1989 to 1998, all but the two-episode finale were 22 or 23 minutes long. Commercial breaks, for their part, shaped episode cadence: you could expect a mini-cliffhanger ahead of one. Like HBO and other pay-TV channels, most streaming services earn money from subscriptions, not ads, so creators enjoy more artistic licence to determine episode length and structure, says Jonathan Dunn of McKinsey, a consultancy. “Tiger King”, Netflix’s latest hit true-crime series, about exotic-cat breeding, comes in chunks lasting anywhere between 40 minutes and 48 minutes.

随着电视在上世纪50年代征服了西方家庭,电视节目主要以两种时长呈现:半小时和一小时。在美国,留出广告时间后,制片人就有了20几分钟或40几分钟的时间来播放节目。1989年至1998年播出的情景喜剧《宋飞正传》有173集,除了最后一集分上下两集外,其余都是22或23分钟。而广告时间也影响了单集节目的节奏:在进入广告前,你一般都会看到一个小悬念。咨询公司麦肯锡的乔纳森·邓恩(Jonathan Dunn)表示,与HBO和其他付费电视频道一样,流媒体服务大多是靠订阅而不是广告来赚钱,创作者因而享有更大的发挥空间来决定单集的长度和结构。奈飞(Netflix)关于驯养稀有猫科动物的最新热门真实犯罪剧集《养虎为患》(Tiger King)单集时长在40分钟到48分钟之间。

The medium also determines the structure and number of shows’ seasons. As the number of American commercial TV stations increased from fewer than 600 in 1965 to 1,600 in 2000, they needed more shows to fill schedules. Since new ones are risky bets, broadcasters preferred to stick to existing programmes. Episode counts went up, boosted by syndication contracts, which generally stipulated that after a show had aired for a certain number of episodes, usually 88 (or four seasons), the rights to air it could be sold to third parties.


Streaming services like Netflix take the opposite tack to syndication, luring viewers with fresh content that cannot be found elsewhere. Many of the 10m people who signed up for Disney’s new streaming platform by its first day last November probably did so to watch “The Mandalorian”, a Star Wars spin-off. In the first nine months of 2019 seven of Netflix’s ten most-watched original shows were in their debut season. Unless a show is a mega-hit like HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, explains Leigh Brecheen, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood, it now makes more financial sense to produce something new rather than renew something old.

像奈飞这样的流媒体服务采取了与分销相反的策略,用别处找不到的新鲜内容来吸引观众。去年11月,迪士尼的新流媒体平台在上线第一天吸引了1000万人注册,其中许多人可能是为了观看《星球大战》的衍生剧《曼达洛人》。2019年的前九个月,奈飞观看量前十的原创剧集有七部是新剧。好莱坞的娱乐业律师利·布雷肯(Leigh Brecheen)解释说,从赚钱的角度来讲,如今制作新东西比炒冷饭更明智,除非是像HBO的《权力的游戏》那样的大热剧。

The upshot of the shift away from syndication and towards streaming has been a decline in the average number of episodes per season. Based on figures for 34,000 TV shows worldwide that debuted between 1955 and 2018, compiled by the TVDB, a website, this fell from over 20 to under 11 (see chart). The number of seasons per series dropped, too, by nearly 70%.


Many actors, producers and writers love these abridged runs because they give them the flexibility to take other jobs. Creators also no longer need to worry that their shows will one day be aired sporadically through syndication, so are free to let plots unspool over multiple episodes. Sitcom episodes remain mostly self-contained but serialised drama is “uniquely suited” for streaming, says Sandra Stern of Lionsgate, a production company. The internet has also enabled “binge-watching”, which Netflix pioneered with the release of the entire first season of “House of Cards”, a political thriller, on February 1st 2013. Binge-friendly platforms allow viewers to skip the opening and final credits—and encourage creators to start with a bigger bang and end hanging on a steeper cliff. ■

集数缩减受到许多演员、制片人和编剧的欢迎,因为这给了他们接受其他工作的灵活性。创作者也不用再担心自己的剧某天会通过分销断断续续地播出,因此可以自由地让情节在好几集内徐徐展开。制作公司狮门(Lionsgate)的桑德拉·斯特恩(Sandra Stern)说,情景喜剧单集的剧情大多仍旧是独立的,但连续剧“特别适合”流媒体。互联网也让“刷剧”成为可能。奈飞在2013年2月1日将政治惊悚片《纸牌屋》第一季整季放出,率先开创了这一观剧形式。方便刷剧的平台让观众可以跳过片头和片尾的演职员表——并鼓励创作者在开局激起更大的水花,并以更扣人心弦的悬念收尾。