The rise and demise of the boxed set?

This may not seem like a very important or cerebral blog, writing about the ‘telly’. But how shows get funded and distributed, and how that impacts our culture, probably is. Also, as a writer, I need to think about these kind of things. So here goes.

I recently signed up to the popular online TV and Film service Netflix, and it’s got me thinking about the way in which we consume entertainment and how this has changed over the years.

The thought struck me while I sat and watched another few episodes of Channel 4’s excellent ‘Peep Show’ and I realised that I was but a few episodes off having watched the whole available seven series in a matter of a few weeks.

‘Peep Show’ is one of those shows that I missed the first few series, dabbled in the middle, lost interest because I didn’t know the back-story, and vowed to “watch one day” if I could get my hands on a box-set from someone. It didn’t quite fit into the “I must watch this show so I will buy the box set” category, so for many years it seems, I just let it be a thing on the telly that I didn’t watch.

But then, at the start of this summer, I got reeled into a free-trial of Netflix and started perusing the available titles in this new digital treasure-trove of viewing pleasure, and what did I find? The first 7 series of Peep Show, all there, all waiting to be watched. No more ogling shiny boxes (actual boxes) in HMV while heading straight for the 3 for £10 DVD section (or even VHS, back when), the box set had come to me and unwrapped itself neatly into my TV screen alongside hundreds of others without the need for mass shelf storage solutions.

The good thing about watching a series in this way online is no adverts and no limits on viewing, meaning that in the time you may have watched a three hour film, you can basically watch a whole series of a show and not feel bad. Even better, you can watch the first episodes of a show you’ve never heard of or never considered before and not feel like you’ve wasted any money, which in the box-set days (actual boxes), really wasn’t an option for most of us. I doubt many people just wandered into HMV, picked up something they’d never heard of and spent a fair sum of money on buying the collected series, ‘just in case’ it was decent.

There may be some unfortunate side-effects. For several mornings following my Peep Show sessions, I have been haunted by the self-loathing voice of David Mitchell as I go about my day, floating in the back of my mind just like his inner voice-over that characterises the show.

“Shreddies again” he seems to say as I stare at my breakfast bowl “I bet Stalin didn’t start his day with Shreddies. I bet he told everybody else to start their day with Shreddies when secretly he was at the sugar-coated Frosties. Communism is many things, but when it comes to breakfast cereal, I think we can all agree it just doesn’t work…”

Eventually David (aka Mark Corrigan) floats away and my own internal dialogue returns. The funny thing is I never get Robert Webb’s voice (as Jez) reverberating around my psyche, encouraging me to shirk my responsibilities and shag everything that moves. I guess that makes me more ‘Mark’ then ‘Jez’, which is probably oh so true.

For those of you who have never watched Peep Show, I can assure you all that stuff I just said, that actually makes sense.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the way we consume TV and Film now. Before the days of Netflix and other such services, I just wouldn’t have taken a punt on the £50 it would cost to buy the box-set, and so, I would still be ignorant of what has become one of Channel 4’s longest running comedy shows (as a writer who dabbles in sit-com, I can actually scratch the Peep Show marathon up to ‘research’, which makes me feel slightly better about it).

It’s even got to the point where Netflix itself has funded and released the latest series of the brilliant ‘arrested development’ (admittedly, the latest series was not as brilliant as those before, but I still enjoyed it). So can we imagine a world where all TV is now released in one big batch load of episodes, ready to be watched whenever and however we want, with no advert breaks, and no need to trawl through the hundreds of channels whose schedules, quite often, do not suit yours?

I think it is quite easy to see a future where we consume our entertainment solely in this way, and all funding is made from direct subscription to the service. But then, what if one service has something that the other doesn’t? I’m going to presume this already happens between the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm. What if, for example, one or the other acquires the whole ‘Lost’ collection on an exclusive deal, and we end up with a Virgin vs. Sky situation where you have to choose your side or go all out mental, signing up for everything? It would be the TV equivalent to owning an X-Box, a Playstation and a Wii, just so that you never miss a new game release.

Presumably this would embody the frenzied competition culture that we live in. Whoever gets the best titles gets the most subscribers, but never enough so that one ‘wins’ over the other, or we end up in a monopoly situation. So actually, by encouraging consumer choice in these matters, and presuming that very few of us would go around signing up for every service, it is actually going to limit our viewing choices. This may push more of us into internet piracy, simply downloading our series for free because we aren’t willing to spend yet more money on unlocking access to a database somewhere…

It’s a tricky question, and one that I’m sure the BBC and private networks are pondering. The broadcast channels must remain relevant and offer the kind of quality that keeps us switching on alongside the instant-fix of streaming services, otherwise, how can they continue to survive? At a thought, only news and sport seems to be the kind of thing that most people wouldn’t be prepared to ‘watch again’ at a later date, but I certainly wouldn’t pay my licence fee for one channel constantly rotating between news and sport (though sometimes it feels like that anyway).

My concern is for good drama and ‘event’ TV. Just like the gamers who will rush out and buy the brand new shiny title on the day of release for a whacking great £40, rather than wait a month or two for it to come down in price, TV consumers, I think, will continue to watch exclusives on the normal broadcast channels, if they are good enough, exclusive enough, and worth the money. Just like movies going from cinemas to pay-per-view to DVD, and eventually to broadcast, TV series will have to get into a staggered pattern of release that we all understand and can look forward to.

Broadcast TV perhaps needs to become a kind of ‘cinema’ in your front-room, showing the latest episodes of new content, knowing that one day the whole lot will end up eventually on a streaming service, but basking in the time frame they have to absorb the revenue for exclusivity, afforded to them because they funded the production. But then – and this is where it gets tricky – do we only want sure-fire popular hits to be funded because of this arrangement? Maybe something like ‘country-file’ isn’t a big hitter with the younger generations, and I expect it is a no-no on the box-set front, but would we want to deny the target demographic their entertainment, just because it can’t be branded as an exclusive and cutting edge drama/comedy/action etc…?

One thing I’m sure of, the physical big shiny box-set (actual boxes) in the window display of HMV must be on its way out. I know there are a few peeps who still like to actually physically own the DVD/Blue Ray etc… But this isn’t vinyl records we are talking about where the media itself is worth the experience of owning for its subtle nuances. If you’re internet is fast enough to stream HD TV down the wires, is there really any need to start constructing walls of Box-Sets in your living room that contain exactly the same copy as online but are prone to physical damage?

So online box-sets in the form of streaming services, fed into by the broadcast media (who will have to try harder than ever to remain relevant and hopefully as a result produce some really good entertainment) seems to be the model we are heading towards. But I don’t know if it is working. When I do sit down at the end of a day and flick through the usual channels, more often than not, I am heading straight for series-linked recordings or switching straight over to Netflix to watch something I actually want to watch, rather than waiting for some scheduler to be broadcasting something I like at the exact time I have sat down. But for some reason, I still like the idea that they are there and occasionally, something makes me turn to them still, but less and less so.

Conclusions? No, not really. But soon, I think, they will be made by us without even realising it and we will look back at this multi-option viewing period of history and laugh, or cry, into our google glasses, as we walk around each day to a constant stream of braking bad, the wire and the soprano’s beamed directly into our memory banks from a USB stick in our ear.

The death of a script & knowing when to move on.

After my absence (ten days in Menorca don’t you know, with a few days of sloth either side), I thought I would kick off my blog entries again with a little more about rejection. Ah, rejection, my old friend.

                You see, dealing with rejection comes hand in hand with life anyway, but I’ve found even more so when trying to pursue a career in the creative arts. I’m sure you will have at some point heard the familiar story of a now-famous author who collected rejection letters by the box load, the pop and rock stars that were turned down by some retrospectively stupid talent scout. Well, that’s because it’s true no doubt. There must be a handful of people who tried something first time and were given licence to continue by some purse-string, but I would guess it is the few, not the many.

                The more important question I’ve found is how you deal with it and what you make of it. There seems to be a number of stages and responses that occur, whether you like it or not, normal, human responses to someone telling they don’t think you (or your work) is good enough:

DenialYes it is good enough! The person has obviously had a taste transplant or wasn’t paying close attention! They have all the potential-spotting potential of a grapefruit!

Woe Oh god. It’s not good enough. I’m not good enough, basically. I may as well give up on everything, ever.

ResolveSo, one person doesn’t think it’s good enough? I need to try someone else then. Do I trust the future of my work to one person I’ve never met, who for all I know, didn’t even read/hear/see the thing? Keep on at it.

AcceptanceYeah. It isn’t good enough. I need to start again and make it or the next project better.

                Can you guess which two of the above are my recommended options in this situation? That’s right, resolve and acceptance (in that order – resolve has to give way to acceptance eventually, if rejection is still happening). Not saying that I’ve eliminated denial and woe, they are instinctive reactions, you can’t stop them, but you can deal with them.

                To use an example that spurred me into writing this brief exploration of rejection, I’ve just had two rejections for the same sit-com script from two different production houses.

                The first was the BBC. They have a submission window twice a year now where you can send off your scripts for any genre/platform, along with the thousands of others, and hope it progresses through the review stages. First stage, where 80% of all submissions fail, is a scan through the first ten pages. If nothing jumps out, slaps the readers face, tweaks their nose and says ‘I’m fresh, unique and exemplary!” – you won’t get past this stage. Which is fair enough. This is the stage my script failed at. Which again, is fair enough. After this stage, if you are lucky, the remaining 20% of submissions get filtered further by more detailed reading and second opinions, and they are eventually left with just 1% being taken further, and even then there is no guarantee it will get past the first development meeting and even get made.

                Unfortunately, being one of thousands rejected at stage one, you get absolutely no feedback, other than the generic ‘don’t be disheartened, it just didn’t grab out attention this time etc…’. So, I have no specific advice to build on here. I understand why they can’t offer this though, they really do have a lot of scripts to read.

                The second rejection I received was from an independent production house, responsible for most of the better radio comedy on BBC4 at the moment, and a huge chunk of the television comedy legacy to come out of the rallying, alternative 80’s and beyond. This was what I like to call positive rejection. I received a letter, specific to me, referencing my script name and the characters in it, with actual feedback about the reasons for not wanting to take it on.

                Before I go into those reasons, here is the programme synopsis, can you spot why it failed?

“Set in and around the offices of small-town weekly newspaper ‘The Herald’ in the fictional market town of ‘Dulton’ in the Midlands. The Herald and its small team are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a new editor, Barry Barryson, an American with a mysterious past who seems to have walked straight out of the ‘Daily Planet’ and into rural England. Barryson wants sex, scandal and scoops, but these things are in short supply in a town where planning application for a new lamp-post is front page news.

                Senior journalist James Boon is the old guard of an easy life and easy journalism. The arrival of Barryson rocks his world, and he doesn’t like it. Together with his junior journalist Erica Roberts and photographer Steveo Brough, he is determined to oust Barryson or at the very least, ignore him and his crazy ideas and hope he eventually goes away. In the meantime however, the paper must go on! That cow that thinks he’s a horse won’t interview himself.

                 ‘The Herald’ will revolve around the main cast of Boon, Erica and Steveo while Barryson wanders in and out of the action with frantic speeches and bizarre ideas that set the pace and story of the action. It will focus on the dynamic between the core cast within the coverage of the various twee local news stories that arise in Dulton. Other characters will come in as necessary for each storyline, but never at the expense of the core cast who will drive the episodes with their banter and reflections on events, rather than being overly ‘situation’ based. Boon is the dominant voice, the real leader of the group, who believes himself to be senior in both years and wit to his junior colleagues. In this he is at least half right, but as with all great schemers, his plans often go awry.

                In this pilot episode we are introduced to the cast through the arrival of Barryson and the reactions of the existing staff. Future episodes will continue to run the core plotline of Boon’s attempt to oust or avoid Barryson, while introducing individual plots based on various overblown local news stories.

                This idea was inspired by a weekly newspaper in a small town where I used to live that literally ran an article once on a cow that thought it was a horse. It was published weekly, so if anything exciting really did happen, you had to wait a week to read about it. This paper and others like it are a constant source of comedy plots so I think ‘The Herald’ has potentially a long life-span without fear of falling into cliché and forced situations.

                Coupled with a vibrant dynamic between the main characters and their individual stories, I believe this is a formula for a successful radio comedy along the lines of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Cabin Pressure’, and will appeal to a similar demographic.”

                Okay, so without the actual script to read (available on request by the way), maybe this isn’t enough to go on, but I will give you a clue – it was the crazy American editor. At least, that was one of the reasons cited in the rejection letter. His presence, his character, just wasn’t ‘believable’, I’m told, and I agree.

                The positive feedback I received was that the opening scene was ‘better than most’ and made the producer laugh. The opening scene featured the existing staff of the newspaper talking amongst themselves, and as I was writing it, I felt at ease with the dynamic. Unfortunately, this scene led up to the arrival of the new crazy American editor, bursting into their lives, and basically disrupting my easy dynamic and setting the tone-o-meter to ‘whacky’.

                This may have worked for other production houses – think of the IT crowd with the two bosses (played by Chris Morris and Matt Berry respectively). They were both ‘whacky’, ‘whirlwind’ characters who owned all their scenes and scoffed in the face of believability… but it wasn’t the producers of ‘The IT crowd’ I had sent this to, and even if I had, would they want to pursue another show with that kind of force present in it, having done it so well already?

                So do I re-write (again) this script sans whacky American editor? No. I don’t think so. I think it’s time to move on. This was only my second attempt at a sit-com pilot script, which I had already adapted from a TV script to Radio, figuring that the overheads of radio production would make it more likely to get looked at (a tip I still think is correct). The original TV version had its own round of rejections some time ago, and all in all, this idea is now a few years old and it’s sad to see it limping to its demise, one rejection letter at a time, when I could just take it out back, and blow its brains out.

                I have reached acceptance, and now it is time for something new, learning the lessons that this script has taught me, absorbing the advice of the industry professionals who have offered it, wrapped as it was in rejection, and pouring this into the next project. Of course, this script will lurk in the background, and may even surface again one day, but even if not, it will be just as important as my successes, for it will have informed them and shaped them by its negative presence.

                I suppose there is some kind of metaphor in there for more important things in life, but that wasn’t the point, but if you want it, take it… I don’t care. Eat my metaphor.

                Thanks for reading.

                Ps – If anyone wants to read the script of ‘the Herald’ – please message me. You are welcome.

                P.ps – If any ‘budding’ writers are reading this, one thing I need to mention, while this script was being submitted and I was waiting for a response, I didn’t sit idle – Sit-com scripts are just one aspect of my work, and the best advice I’ve heard when submitting work is to forget about it until you get your response. In the meantime I worked on several other projects, and that is the key. There’s no point writing one thing and then waiting for several weeks or months to find out it has been rejected. Send it, move on, send it, move one and so on.