I keep hearing that we live in the Golden Age of television. It is an interesting notion, and much has been written about it. Personally I believe television has quietly been supplanted by digital content. Certainly the traditional pattern of Televison watching has been mostly supplanted by the digital age pattern of consuming media. If my friends miss Game of Thrones or Vikings they store it as a file and watch it when they want. That they cannot legally watch it from their computers or phones in some cases is the vestige of old TV culture, while the pattern and content fits something newer. Of course, much of Digital Content evolved out of TV in many ways, so it is hard to separate the two.
Regardless of whether you agree with me or not that Digital Content is the man in the iron mask, the way we now consume our video media is much better for Fantasy series. Here are a few salient points as to why:
- Digital Consumption: Fantasy requires more investment. The rules of a particular world require that the audience take the time to learn them. With old media it was often hard to get difficult concepts into a show because of the episodic nature of consumption. If I introduced a complex notion in one episode and then used it in another episode, there was no guarantee that the viewer would have seen it, so I would either have to explain it all over again or risk them not picking up the important points. Since exposition is often dull, this can create problems. Obviously some shows worked around this limitation, but now it isn’t a limitation at all.
- Serial Format: The Serial has become the dominant form of video content. While it has its roots in mini-series and the early serials from the pre-millennial years serial television came into its own under digital consumption patterns. The fact that we can watch these shows when we want to, often on whatever device we have available, save our place, go back to check things, and so one makes complex serials possible. This serial format is brilliantly suited to Fantasy, which often proceeds at a stately place that is at odds with a movie and impossible in episodic TV. Epic Fantasy, in particular, works better as a serial revolving around a long plot. It still requires adaptation from book form to fit the highs and lows of one hour episodes, but that is becoming easier and easier especially as obstacles like commercial breaks are often absent in digital shows.
- Cheaper, Better FX: Rome was cancelled after two seasons because of the enormous expense of the show. Game of Thrones pushes the envelope of what is possible on a TV show of any budget. Both would have been impossible prior to the digital age. FX are becoming better and better in nearly every way. Even amateur youtube videos often have better special effects than the TV series that I grew up with. Meanwhile we are reaching the point that a TV series with a modest budget can actually afford to emulate super heroes and magical powers and not come off as cheap or cheesy. This is great news for fantasy fans.
- The Audience: As formats align and costs come down, it becomes easier to make a profit satisfying a niche audience. With the enormous competition between a multitude of channels it often pays to cater to a niche that has a large ready-made fan base. Not every show can expect to break through into the mainstream, like Game of Thrones, Vikings, Rome, and so on but if we are not yet at a point where a decent Fantasy serial can be made for a niche audience we will be very soon. Of course, as modern fantasy matures and branches out, there are more and more fans willing to watch shows about elves, orcs, magic, and the fantastical and take them seriously. Additionally those who are curious, but not used to the nuances of a particular niche, can easily find online guides and communities willing to help them “get it”.
In short, I believe that the consumption pattern, sophisticated audience, and simple possibilities of the digital age is better for making a Fantasy “TV” series. I hope to see more soon.