It is an undeniable fact that for the last ten years or so, TV series have met with unprecedented world-wide success: millions of people are glued to their television screens (and their laptops) who are willing to spend several hours, even in a row, of their time to follow the developments of the most varied plots and characters. But what are the real reasons for this success? Behind it all, a fundamental part is without a doubt played by the new technologies which have revolutionised the way contents are used and enjoyed.
The “serial narrative” of the past
Starting with a brilliant intuition by Umberto Eco, let’s begin to list what the two great serial narrative methods from the past were.
- Seriality understood as great storytelling: the narrative fulcrum is constantly evolving, there are no fixed story lines or characters, but the plot changes all the time as the episodes move forward. There is a constant storyline which serves as the “base line” (for instance, the historic development of a family), onto which the intertwining characters and constantly evolving plots are built. One example of this narrative method are major soap operas, such as The Bold and the Beautiful.
- Seriality based on fixed characters: the main characters are carefully outlined and then each episode repeats the same pattern around them, with certain narrative variants. Even though some episodes may prove to be linked by a main scheme, in general each one constitutes a stand-alone narrative universe, so that the audience doesn’t have to follow every episode in order. One example of this type of narrative could be TV series and dramas (Derrick, Murder, She Wrote, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) which proved popular on TV during the Eighties and Nineties.
These narrative methods met a single important need: to keep the audience glued to their TVs for as many episodes as possible, even if they missed some. Unfortunately, over time, these series lost a considerable percentage of their audience for two reasons:
- the episodes were too interlinked, and if a few episodes were missed, unfortunately the audience lost the general sense of the plot (in the case of soap operas).
- the fact that each episode constituted a narrative universe of its own led the audience to grow bored and fall into the disheartening “sameness” effect (in the case of TV series and dramas).
Generally, however, this began to occur right at a time when the means available were changing and the Internet took on a role of vital importance within this change.
The Internet and TV series: that’s the real revolution!
The digital revolution of the third millennium has changed everything in almost every sphere of life, including entertainment. Indeed, thanks to platforms such as Netflix, Sky and Amazon, viewers can watch episodes at any given time and watch them again and again as they please, therefore without the need to create a “micro-universe” for each episode, that’s separate from the others or risking a waning audience due to missing episodes. The possibility, therefore, of watching scenes or whole episodes again (and thus to focus more on the details) has without a doubt made it possible to raise the level of quality of series considerably in terms of screen writing, editing, photography and narrative plot. This may be shocking news to some, but many have begun to compare the impact of TV series today with that of the novel during the 19th Century. Let’s allow future generations to decide; nevertheless what is certain is that the superior level of quality favoured by the new media on which they rely is the main reason for the success of modern TV series.
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