Drama’s appeal is timeless due to our basic human drive to engage emotionally. But why the recent rise in its appeal? Is this a cyclical phenomena or is something more tangible and predictable going on?
Here are 5 key factors behind the new golden age of TV drama. None of these in isolation is fully responsible, but in combination they have created a perfect storm…
- Fiction is new truth
We live in an age of information overload. There is simply too much of everything for most people to comprehend and know what to trust. We have 24 hr news, continuous online updates, Twitter and social media to provide ubiquitous, real-time updates, YouTube and Facebook allow everyone to be a broadcaster, and we have a multiplicity of ‘all you can eat’ OTT SVOD services.
The world, and how we tune into it, is now ‘always on’.
As a result we are finding it harder and harder to make sense of reality and know which sources and information we can trust. It’s getting harder to ‘see the wood for the trees’. This used to be the job of news media but this has now been scuppered by a cornucopia of online media sources that mainly serve to confuse. Most debates tend to revolve around two really strong opposing views that polarise opinion and lead to near 50:50 splits – just look at the UK’s Brexit vote, was the referendum outcome a result of responsible informed debate, or political, mass and social media driven confusion?
We’ve entered an era where the truth feels hidden and obfuscated so that people no longer know what to believe and trust.
Given the human tendency to want to rationalise, this new environment is having an impact on popular culture. If the real world can’t supply, or report, rational stories in a coherent, trusted, way then people will go elsewhere for their fix: hence the increased demand for TV drama.
Fiction is where people now go to for truth: not the real truth, but a simulation of truth that is clear, definable, trustworthy, entertaining, and reaches a logical conclusion!
2. The polarisation of the film industry
Film has polarised towards big ticket special effects blockbusters. See the chart below showing how the % of action movies has risen significantly.
This unyielding trend means less room for actors, films or art-house movies that are struggling more than ever to get funding and exposure. As a result, the TV industry, and the US cable channels in particular, have opened the door and placed a huge welcome mat down for film talent to explore what TV has to offer. And they like it. They like the freedom that exists when not constrained to 90 minutes, they like how characters and plots can develop over 13 episodes and then over a 5 season story arc, they like the greater discipline involved in the production process which means their art is efficiently created and made available to wider audiences than art-house cinemas can ever provide. They also like the potential upside in success.
Netflix’s House of Cards was an early trend-setter with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey on board from the film world. HBO’s True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and Walking Dead was the brainchild of Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption). These are just a few examples of TV series featuring great storytelling movie talent otherwise starved of their outlet.
3. The commoditisation of reality TV
I recently published research findings showing how the growth in new reality/entertainment TV formats has hit a brick wall.
The key chart is reproduced below, but the key finding is that there have been no new global entertainment/reality TV formats created in the last 5 years.
Not only has there been no new global brands being created, but the whole genre appears to have reached maturity as audiences decline and many (though not all) once Networked prime time shows are either declining, being cancelled, or moving off peak or to smaller channels.
Most of these formats rely heavily on the drama of following a contestant through the journey of a reality TV show. This construct provides great storytelling potential, but repeat the story too many times, or create too many manufactured plot twists, and the audience begins to see the tricks.
However, audiences still want their drama fix. Real drama with proper actors, great scripts and technical excellence. This basic human desire needs its fulfilment so as commoditised reality takes a back seat, real drama is filling the gap.
4. Favourable economics of drama relative to other content genres
Most of the time, a hit drama series makes more money than a hit unscripted series. It’s a generalisation, but the key factors that favour the economics of scripted include:
- Drama enjoys value-based pricing for international sales vs cost-based pricing for unscripted content
- Drama is more likely to sell to more markets than unscripted
- Drama series have more likely buyers per market than unscripted thus increasing competition
- Drama works well in re-run unscripted series don’t re-run so well
- Drama series yield greater secondary value than unscripted through products like box-sets and downloads.
Drama series have really long-shelf lives in success and generate risk-free royalty flows for multiple sales cycles. 20 year old series of Friends, for example, are widely available, but no-one broadcasts old reality shows.
So now that the pendulum of audience demand has swung significantly away from unscripted content and towards scripted, these favourable economics have created a new gold-rush for producers seeking to create the next hit drama franchise. A higher risk strategy with longer lead times, but risks perceived as worth taking in the current environment.
5. The power of the Internet and the rise of OTT (Over-the-top) delivery
People freed from the shackles of scheduled TV have discovered binge viewing and it’s here to stay. The below chart, showing how subscribers to Netflix has risen globally to 75m, is compelling evidence, not that it is needed, to support the view that people want to consume their content on-demand rather than scheduled if given the choice.
The large majority of Netflix content currently consists of third party owned catalogue drama series and re-run movies. In other words, scripted, story-based content. This rapid growth in subscribers and demand for scripted content has led Netflix, Amazon and others to invest heavily in their own original content to reduce reliance on catalogue and enable their offerings to be more current, original and distinctive. Hence “Netflix Originals”.
This perfect storm of multiple factors has resulted in the amazing boom for TV drama, in terms of both quality and quantity, that the world is currently enjoying.
The inherent demand for storytelling is driven by the way our emotions are processed – neuroscience has proven that emotional processing accounts for the bulk of what our brains do. Storytelling has been the predominant medium for helping us connect with our emotions and each other since cavemen sat around fires, but during the TV era storytelling has become more passive and shackled audiences to fixed schedules due to the technological constraints of broadcast TV. A more immersive consumption of storytelling is now being enabled by the so called binge-viewing afforded initially by boxed-sets, and now by OTT operators like Netflix.
Now that the shackles are off, the evolution of storytelling will move towards more immersion and interaction between storytellers and audiences. The two-way nature of the Internet, and its inherent connectivity, present the perfect conditions to enable our emotion-driven needs to be unlocked through OTT delivered storytelling in a profound way. The TV industry has so far fallen short in its use of technologies to fuel greater immersion, interaction and emotional connection, but the technologies now exist (at least in nascent form) as is the latent demand. For now, though, we continue to enjoy the journey from scheduled to on-demand before the final destination of fully immersive, interactive and connected storytelling.
Is this why Disney, that great bastion of storytelling, is rumoured to be interested in Netflix? Does Disney see the potential of where storytelling is headed and therefore realised that they now need a direct two-way pipe into audience homes such as that which Netflix has built?
® Dan Allen