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.