How Television Binging Could Save An Industry

When I was a kid, my Summer vacations gave me a few months off from school.  I usually got to spend a few weeks at Summer Camp, but other than that I spent most of my time reading, mostly science fiction.  One of the downsides of being an adult is losing that long stretch of free time; instead, I have a few hours at the store most mornings before the customers start to show up.  I can write or read or watch YouTube videos with few interruptions.

All year-round Bevie and I spend our evenings together eating dinner and then watching television.  Most of the year this entails taping the shows we want to watch all week long and then deciding each night which of our stored treasures we’ll open up.  Our current cable boxes can now store up to 100 hours of shows, but there are so many shows we want to watch that during most of the year we typically fill up 70% or more of that space.  That grinds to a halt in June: the shows from the Fall to Spring season that we’ve saved up run out, and after we binge we’re left with slim pickings from the Summer shows.  Bevie still has lots of shows she records, mostly horror and SciFi channel series and cooking and craft shows, but I have little interest in any of that.  As a result, we usually end up binging shows we may not have seen during the regular television season.  Sadly, this year we couldn’t even find many shows from the last year that we missed, so we looked at the shows in my instant queue on Netflix and decided to give Blue Bloods a chance.

Blue Bloods is primarily a police procedural that stars Tom Selleck as the police commissioner of New York City.  The cast includes his father (a former police commissioner), a son who is a detective, a daughter who is an assistant district attorney, and another son who studied to be a lawyer but changed course and became a rookie street cop.  There are also a wife and three kids in the mix.  It’s the kind of show I would normally watch, but back in 2010 we could only tape two shows at a time, and Blue Bloods was the odd show out that we skipped.

We’ve already managed to watch over 70 of the 133 available episodes this Summer.  With few exceptions, the episodes follow a very specific pattern:

  • Each episode has three distinct plotlines following different characters.
  • The plotlines will sometimes intersect but have individual resolutions.
  • At some point in the episode, the entire family will come together at a dinner, giving them a chance to discuss the events of the episode.
  • Prior events in older episodes are sometimes referenced, but only as a nod to long-time viewers.

The important part of the plotting is very simple: done in one.  With only a small handful of exceptions, there are no big bads hanging over every episode and no ongoing investigations that clutter up the episodes.  While the characters may learn a lesson or become more aware of the challenges faced by the roles other characters play in the pursuit of justice, there is no major character development on the show.  The net result is that viewers who are not recording and binging episodes can casually decide one Friday night to watch the show live and not feel like they don’t know what’s going on.  Unlike almost every other show we watch, Blue Bloods is NOT an ongoing soap opera that requires constant attention.  While the show did have an unsolved mystery in the first season that impacted a handful of episodes, they did not return to that pattern in the following seasons and ratings for the show improved.

The show has also had a rotating group of supporting characters the family members work with, including several different partners, but they have enhanced the storylines without requiring constant attention from the viewers.

How I wish the comic book industry could learn a lesson or two from Blue Bloods!

Return with me now to a short visit to the comic books of the late fifties and early sixties.  Each comic book featured three complete, self-contained stories.  Worlds Finest, Detective Comics, Action Comics and Adventure comics were anthology books that had three complete stories that each featured different heroes.  Readers could pick up and read any comic off the newsstand and know everything they needed to know to follow and understand the story.

There was mild continuity.  There were recurring characters (such as the Legion of Superheroes) who would show up from time to time.  It was fun when the comics mentioned (in a note to the reader) which issues in the past had featured some of the characters before, or mentioned little things from the past (like Flash’s watch that could record sounds helping save the Justice League).  These little nods to long-time readers encouraged but did not require reading every….single….issue.

The first clue I had that things were changing came in 1959 when Wonder Woman #105 featured a single story that filled up the entire comic.  Showcase and Brave and Bold comics quickly followed suit, and Fantastic Four #1 started the tide at Marvel that would eventually put an end to multiple stories in a comic.

There were crossovers between comics, but not the kinds of events we have now.  Guest appearances were usually complete in one comic (such as the Spider-man/Avengers/Hulk crossover in Amazing Spider-man Annual #3).  Sometimes a story only required reading one comic from each of the main characters (such as the Namor versus Iron Man story that started in Tales of Suspense #80 and ended in Tales to Astonish #82).

Comic sales were in the millions.

Sadly, look where comics are now!  Very few writers seem to be able to tell a complete story in a single issue, and there appears to be pressure on writers to write to the trade: storylines are designed to last 4 to 6 issues so they can be collected in a graphic novel.  The ongoing soap opera that makes up most comics make it nearly impossible for new readers to get into most comics (except by buying the expensive trade paperbacks).  Nobody can casually pick up a single issue of hardly any comic and expect a self-contained story.  Everything seems geared to keeping the current readers at the expense of growing the audience for the comics and attracting new readers.  The only way Marvel and DC try to widen their audience is by throwing away what came before and starting over (and over and over) or by throwing out massive crossover events that require buying dozens of different, unrelated titles to keep customers spending money.  Instead, it appears they are driving away their customers without bringing in any new readers.  One would think that the success of the movies and television shows featuring comic book characters would lead to booming sales of the comics, but the high cost of the comics combined with the difficulty of finding an entry point has blocked that.

Sales of comics are now in the tens of thousands.  Or less.

Perhaps the comic book companies could learn something by binging Blue Bloods.  Bring back self-contained stories.  Produce comics that match the media characters people are expecting.  With any luck, those sorts of changes would yield higher sales that would allow lower prices which would lead to much higher sales.

We don’t often get songs that mention comic book characters.  Early in his career, Donovan sounded a lot like early Bob Dylan, and there’s even a video on YouTube of the two of them singing to each other.  While Donovan had success in his early career doing folk-rock songs like Catch the Wind and Colours, he didn’t really hit it big in the US until he switched a more pop-oriented sound and released Sunshine Superman, his first and only number 1 record in this country.

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