CMNS 236 Understanding More Television: The Changing Landscape of TV

Carlo Javier, Binge-watcher and binge-eater // Illustration by Cynthia Tran Vo

One of my favourite cold opens from The Office is the one where Michael Scott (Steve Carell) emulates Meryl Streep’s menacing portrayal of Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. The range of emotions that Michael goes through as he progresses through his incremental viewing of the movie was a sight to behold, but what really gets me during my many retroactive binge-watching sessions of The Office is when Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) says:  

“Michael just rented The Devil Wears Prada. He has his Netflix sent here to the office and he watches them in pieces when things are slow.” 

The episode originally aired on Oct. 8, 2007. Netflix existed then, but in an iteration not many youths today might recognize – as a video-on-demand service that physically mailed subscribers DVDs of recommended movies. It was a different time. Using algorithms to predict the type of content that viewers might like hadn’t been thought of yet. Streaming shows was still years away and Netflix was still steps away from its next iteration, which was online DVD rentals.  

Oh, how things have changed. 

I didn’t see The Office until five years after its production ended and like its horde of fans, it’s a show that I rank highly on my list of personal favourites. Yet I do believe that had I been a viewer of The Office during its original run, my relationship with the show wouldn’t be as significant. Netflix and its streaming model was just the perfect way to consume the 22-42 minutes of an Office episode.  

The numbers don’t lie either. Towards the end of 2018, Netflix saw two major news reports regarding their economics. One, they paid upwards of $100 million to keep Friends in their library. Two, The Office continues to be, far and away, the most popular television show on Netflix – amassing over seven per cent of the viewer share, almost doubling the number of the second-place series, Friends. 

It is a great understatement to say that Netflix has disrupted mass media. They developed the algorithm that allowed them to determine the type of shows that viewers want to see. When viewers wanted politics, Netflix came out with House of Cards. Want Game of Thrones and high fantasy, but don’t want to pay the premium prices of HBO? Here’s The Last Kingdom and Marco Polo. Looking for more superheroes? Check out Daredevil or Jessica Jones. 

It’s a fascinating science, especially when considering the other side of the conversation. Netflix Originals is bereft of the shows and sitcoms that dominate primetime television. Law enforcement and police procedurals have steadily phased out, medical dramas still populate major networks, but outside of the lasting power of Grey’s Anatomy and Freddie Highmore’s sheer brilliance in The Good Doctor, these medical shows are essentially cannibalizing one another.  

The future doesn’t look too bright for sitcoms either. Yes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is admirably carrying the torch and The Good Place is easily the best show on a major network, but the body count for sitcoms that get axed after one season is jarring.  

Netflix works though. The Office proves it, and other sitcoms like New Girl, Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother all have found renewed success post-production through the streaming model.  

Maybe Marshall McLuhan was indeed right after all. Maybe the medium really is the message. The technology in which our favourite shows are communicated through has effectively changed us – and the entire TV biosphere for that matter. Netflix saw this and adapted to the streaming model while its direct competitors – like Blockbuster – ceased to exist.   

The landscape of television is frequently shifting, and the one constant variable is the viewer. John Fiske wrote that we are agents of culture in process and it would be remiss to study and analyze the state of television without some personal reflection – we are the ones watching these shows after all. That’s exactly what I hope to achieve in this column – to be a conduit for discussions around the ever-evolving culture of TV.  

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