How is technology changing television?

I will counter that with a different question. How has television, and its development, changed technology?

To start, the term television needs to be defined. The Cambridge dictionary defines television in the following way:

A device shaped like a box with a screen that receives electrical signals and changes them into moving images and sound, or the method or business of sending images and sound by electrical signals. (Dictionary, 2021)

I remember hearing as a younger person that television shows were self-contained and had an episodic layout because it was assumed that the viewer did not have the capacity or inclination to try and follow along with a complex story arc. I don’t know if this is actually true, but it sure does sound compelling.

In the early 19th century, in 1831 to be exact, the electronic age began. Sometime after that, the idea was concocted to send images over a wire to a remote location. The technology didn’t exist until 1862 when Abbe Giovanna Caselli invented the Pantelegraph.

As the desire to send more and more images remotely in rapid succession to give the illusion of movement grew, so too did the technology have to adapt.

In 1880, Bell and Edison theorised about adding sound to a transmitted image, but again the technology didn’t exist till later.

In 1906 the first mechanical television set was invented by Lee de Forest utilizing and adapting technology that was developed previously.

Episodic television is a carryover from serialised radio shows. As televisions became less expensive, they became more prevalent in the home.

The first device that can legitimately be called a television set was invented by Philo Farnsworth in 1927. The technology continued to grow, as did the type of programs being shown. (ThoughtCo, 2021)

I think in the early days, it was the desire to be able to see and hear entertainment from your own home that drove the development.

Is that still the case though?

In a sense, I think it is. Because as the audience became more sophisticated and complex, so too did the type of programming evolve, and the technology had to evolve to keep up with audience demands.

I think episodic television was a sign of the times more than anything else.

Early television was difficult and expensive to make programs for. This changed slightly when sponsorship of programs became a thing towards the middle of the 20th century, but before that, the costs involved were absorbed entirely by the people making the program. It made financial and technological sense in the 19th and early 20th century for programs to be entirely self-contained and encapsulated. A self-contained and encapsulated program became the prevailing wisdom.

Still, audiences demanded more.

Audiences demanded that there be character development.

Audiences demanded that there be some form of continuity.

Enter the season finale. The much-maligned “to be continued”.

I think that the season finale was and in a sense still is a risky business, as are complex story arcs and continuities.

The season finale served as a hook to get the audience to carry over from one season to another.

In the early days, with many months in between seasons, it was not possible to refresh yourself as to what happened in the last episode of the last season. I think some audiences lost track of programs. I think this would have led some programs to lose viewers and being cancelled.

In my opinion, this is what lead to the invention of the VCR in 1956. The ability to rewatch the last episode of a season to refresh yourself for the first episode of the next season. I think it was an invention of necessity more than anything.

In my opinion, this started to change in the 1980s with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I say this because there were episodes that had direct consequences to other episodes later seasons, even though for the most part the show followed the episodic format. The Naked Now, season 1 episode 2, for example, Showed the characters Tasha Yar and Data had an intimate relationship at one point. This is later revisited in season 2 episode 9, The measure of a man, where it is revealed that they were close for an extended period and it was one of his best memories of Tasha. Technology unrelated to television had advanced enough so that viewers could spend more time watching their favourite programs. The method of creating television shows had to change to maintain viewers and meet their desires.

The same can be said for much of Star Trek: Voyager, which had an overarching premise, but many of the episodes had a story arch that evolved throughout the 7 seasons. Star Trek: Deepspace Nine started in much the same way as well until season 4, where it largely stopped being episodic at all.

Babylon 5 is another example, the difference is that Babylon 5 was always driven by the story arc, and was never episodic. You can talk to almost any fan of the show, and they will say there are some exceptions, but really there isn’t. The simple reason for this is because each episode had multiple threads running through it, an episode would have A plot and a B plot. Often one was just to distract the viewer from the other more important one that carried on from one episode to the next, and in that way, a complete 5-year arc was created.

I mentioned earlier that having a story arc in a television program is a risky thing. Babylon 5, in my opinion, epitomises that risk. Babylon 5 had a 5-year story arc. Due to studio shenanigans word came down that season 4 would be the last. As a result, a number of the main cast moved on to other projects. At the 11th hour, the show was renewed for the 5th season, but it was too late for those cast members to get out of projects that they had started. This resulted in a heavily reworked season 5 that was largely not what was intended when the show was originally planned out.

Cue up shortened seasons.

An average season is roughly 20 episodes.

Because of things like what happened to Babylon 5, and to an extent also what happened to Stargate: SG-1 which also had a cancellation scare only to be renewed at the 11th hour, someone in the land of television came up with the idea of telling half a seasons story at a time, and for each ‘mini-season’ to be self-contained and encapsulated. I think one of the final nails in the proverbial coffin was Crusade being cancelled midway through a season. I think this directly led to shows like Game of Thrones, or Picard, or Star Trek discovery being shortened, and other shows having seasons released all at once.

Again, technology will have to adapt to meet the needs of the audiences.

References

ThoughtCo. (2021, January 30). Retrieved from When was television invented?: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-invention-of-television-1992531

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