Kevin Spacey says that putting TV viewers in charge of their experience is critical to the future of the medium, and that networks should give up this control if they want to succeed in a new media landscape. Spacey delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week, the first actor to deliver the address in the event’s 38-year history.
Spacey, who has a recent hit on his hands with the Netflix original series House of Cards, said that he and his co-creators, Bo Willimon and David Fincher, took it to the streaming service because they didn’t want to make a pilot, something all networks required of them.
“It wasn’t out of arrogance,” Spacey said. “It was that we wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time, and relationships that would need space to play out.”
This style of storytelling is what Spacey says sets apart recent hit shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, that he says are part of a “Third Golden Age” of television. Character and story are key to these shows, he says, and develop in ways that a pilot could never prove. House of Cards‘ entire 13-episode season was released at once through Netflix, so viewers could watch it all at once or space it out. Spacey says this is the way to go in an era where people are largely in charge of their media consumption:
“The audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge as they’ve been doing on House of Cards then we should let them binge… We have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy.”
House of Cards is nominated for nine Emmy awards this year, and the second season is in production.
The first show I remember “binging” on was 24. I was sick one weekend, and before I settled in with the TV and ginger ale, I managed to crawl to the video store, where I rented an entire season on DVD of this show I kept meaning to catch up on, but never quite had the time. If you want an interesting sick bed experience, watch an entire 24 hours of Kiefer Sutherland trying to protect the United States while trying not to get killed and also keeping an eye on his rowdy daughter. I’m convinced that my real-time viewing experience had a lot to do with what a big fan I became of the show, and influenced my preference for viewing the remaining seasons in chunks of multiple episodes (and therefore hours in Jack Bauer’s crazy day). Apparently I wasn’t alone, because the show is coming back in 2014, this time showing only 12 hours of the 24, in what Fox is calling a “limited series.” Fox Chairman Kevin Reilly is quoted in the New York Times as saying it will be dictated by the plot, so it sounds like he and Kevin Spacey are on the same screen, as it were.
I watched the two existing seasons of Homeland with a similar lack of restraint on Showtime On Demand. I wasn’t sick this time; it was just that good, and I couldn’t stop. I don’t know how I’m going to stand watching Season Three one episode at a time, but I guess I’ll muddle through. This time, much like Mad Men, it was the impassioned response to the show on social media over time — especially Twitter — that convinced me to watch it, and when I finally had the time and inclination, it was available to me to consume as I wanted to. Next up, after I hit way too many pressing deadlines? I am headed to women’s prison, with Orange is the New Black.
So what I’m saying is that I think Kevin Spacey has a point. “The medium is the message” is not a new idea, but it’s still cool to see it coming true, especially when it means that technology can advance storytelling instead of dumbing it down. From the first television shows until the latest episode of Breaking Bad, if it’s not a good story, who wants to watch it, anyway?