The Tool That Should be in Every Writers Toolkit.
In today’s world streaming platforms are jam-packed with content quenching the thirst of their ever-growing audience. However, with the influx of content in the last few years viewers can be left searching through the sea of available content for hours. With a staggering 182.8 million subscribers, Netflix is one of the world’s largest entertainment services (Lee 2020). With their stream of original material directly reaching its audience, the platform has radicalised the TV and Film industry, keeping them ahead of other companies replicating the business model such as Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Disney+. The content they produce not only sets the bar high creatively but has gone down in TV and movie history, receiving 430 award nominations and over 70 awards for its original content (Cook 2020).
Taking into account the current climate, people have more time to watch TV than ever before. Netflix’s momentum in producing original content and ‘re-invention of many genres’ (Variety 2020) is grabbing and maintaining the attention of its viewers. The content on the platform is continuously being shifted, new titles are added, others are removed and some are re-introduced to the platform allowing their subscribers to discover new content, re-discover old favourites, or return to titles they know and enjoy.
Online platforms have introduced the binge-watching culture which has become one of the great appeals of online streaming. ‘Shows are released in bulk, no longer in weekly episodes’ (Yorke 2020). By platforms distributing content in bulk, it encourages audiences to watch shows like a 10-hour movie especially as completing a show in one weekend now comes across as a form of accomplishment or big trophy moment.
Netflix has brought with it a structural change in how TV shows are watched. Shows are made ad-free on streaming services in comparison to a broadcasted show. In January 2020, it was said that 8.4 million Netflix users attempted to binge-watch an entire series in just 24 hours (Iqbal 2020), suggesting audiences prefer to submerge themselves in the world of the TV show as opposed to sitting through frequent ad disruptions.
With broadcast TV, commercials are typically aired either halfway through a sitcom or are made to slot in with a show’s act structure. Furthermore, these advertisements featuring in between a show could potentially disrupt audiences focus, disjointing the show’s story every so often. With streaming services, the idea that shows are watched without the disruption of commercials means that writers must also adapt to this structural change that online platforms have introduced, specifically if they want to write for Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Anthony Horowitz, the creator of Foyle's War (Engler 2010) claimed it is ‘absolutely terrible the way television is chopped’ into ‘little wedges, so you have to be sure that each wedge, each section, satisfies the audience and they keep coming back from the commercial break’ (Daily Mail 2014). The idea the ‘story has to be designed to work around’ (Daily Mail 2014) the commercials in broadcast TV reinforces the pressure and discomfort of incorporating adverts has on the writer, even though ad breaks are there for funding purposes for the show (Daily Mail 2014). In terms of structure, it’s implied that scriptwriters should find writing for streaming platforms a much easier process in comparison to broadcast TV where there is a need to ‘put extra cliffhangers’ into the script to compensate for the distracting ad breaks which could steer audience's away from fully engaging with a show.
The absence of adverts on streaming platforms leaves more space for a show to branch out in ‘depth’ and even go ‘beyond the story’ of the ‘individual’ (Vogal 2020) which is perhaps why viewers are endlessly hooked. Creative Talent Director of Netflix, Christopher Mack claims that audiences ‘develop a relationship with the characters’, suggesting their ‘engagement depends on whether they relate to them or not’ (Balaga 2020). Mack’s statements suggest that Netflix understand their audience’s tastes and their need to disengage with the world by Netflix shows having more ‘time to go very deep into a character’s backstory’ in terms of being making it character-driven which how audiences remain hooked (Vogal 2020). Mack also said in an interview that ‘transformation is key to storytelling’ while ‘change is driving people to watch’ their content (Balaga 2020).
One of the reasons why Netflix is so popular with its audience is due to the data they can collate from their subscribers which enables them to ‘make better decisions and ultimately make users happier with their service’; something that ‘television networks don’t have’ (Patel 2020). The idea they can track their subscribers Netflix habits which includes ‘browsing and scrolling behaviour’ alongside the 4 million ratings they receive per day regarding the films and shows currently distributed (Patel 2020), enables them to appear more personable to their audience via making show recommendations or labelling the ‘Top 10 most popular movies’.
The audience contributes to the marketing approach for Netflix just by watching their content therefore affecting the distribution choices. Social media also plays a role in this, TV and Film is reaching more people than ever before and what’s more, those people can reach back out with their opinions further affecting the content that we get.
Whilst the demand for more content provides more opportunities for writers, the marketplace is getting fuller and fuller and the gap for original material is seemingly narrowing. However, these online platforms giving us this overpowering ability to flick over, pause, play and fast forward, has influenced us in becoming a more demanding society. We become more judgmental as an audience due to the amount of new content we are confronted with, perhaps because we are overwhelmed, and our judgments have become more critical. This expresses the idea that audiences have had to become more critical in order to sieve through the mass of films and shows in order to able to make a choice on what to watch. However, audiences’ pickiness could make it a harder mission for the writers to satisfy their audience.
One of the advantages of streaming services is that films and shows are made flexible and easily accessible as they allow audiences to hook up to content with hardware devices like a tablet, phone or laptop wherever they are. This has helped accommodate viewers in terms of practicality, giving them the option to watch content in any location thereby reducing the pressure to be at home to watch their favourite show. Furthermore, if films and shows are always accessible for audiences, this implies the potential for them to get through content much quicker, leading to the demand for more. Digital mediums are widening the market for more scriptwriters to get their work on screens through the increase of original material which ‘means more new writing across a range of genres’ (Yorke). With services like Netflix regularly distributing new content in a monthly time frame, this presents an ‘ever-evolving range of opportunities for writers’ (Yorke 2020). In regards to widening the market, even Hollywood movie stars are now starring in original streaming programmes (Yorke 2020), which is not only a great marketing strategy but is perhaps because A-listers know that streaming services are attached to a broad audience.
Overall, overcrowded streaming platforms can be a brilliant strategy for a screenwriter in helping them understand more about the craft behind trending shows and keep up with the growing trends of the industry. Netflix especially acts as a screenwriter's tool kit with over 14,000 titles movies and TV shows across 190 countries (Yorke 2020). These new online methods of consuming entertainment are cost-effectively gifting the writer with valuable insight into today’s story techniques that they can apply to their own work. It could be said that there is a much more critical crowd to impress with the creative bar set high so much content everywhere, however, there is still a high demand from audiences who still crave entertainment and escapism through new ideas and ways of storytelling. The growth of online mediums helping to give writers more of an opportunity and a better chance to get their work green-lit thanks to the success of these online services.
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Millie Hayward is based outside of London, with a passion for acting and writing. Millie is currently studying an MA in Writing for Script and Screen at Falmouth University.
Find Millie on Twitter @MillieHayward82