On March 23, 2016

Skeuomorphic television

A “skeuomorph” is a design feature transferred from a traditional object to a newer iteration of the same device for the purpose of continuity of appearance rather than utility. Technically obsolete details once intrinsic to the construction of the object in question will often carry over as stylistic elements intended to create an experience of familiarity for the user. Skeuomorphs clue people in to the nature of a newer product by alluding to previous products that served the same function.

For instance, the earliest automobiles came equipped with buggy whip holders, just like horse-drawn carriages. Modern examples of skeuomorphism include the radiator grilles on electric cars (which have no radiators), the metal rivets (once attached for structural integrity, now strictly decorative) on blue jeans, the cork-colored filters on cigarettes, the glowing LED light at the end of an e-cigarette, and the 292-foot decorative pylons on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.

In the digital world, skeuomorphs are everywhere, orienting users more accustomed to the analog experience: the shutter-click on a digital camera, the shopping cart icon at Amazon.com, the page-flipping mechanism on an e-reader, the artistically rendered depression of a clicked button on a smartphone’s calculator.

They’re controversial in the design community, both hailed for increasing user-friendliness and scorned for reducing efficiency and impeding progress. Why not imagine all these products anew, some ask, instead of transplanting an outmoded real-world interfaces onto our digital screens?

I was watching Judd Apatow’s new series “Love” last week when I started thinking about the skeuomorphic nature of contemporary television. “Love,” like many newer television shows (including Amazon’s “Transparent” and Hulu’s “Difficult People”), never aired on television in the old-fashioned sense; it was produced by Netflix, and the 10 episodes of its first “season” (the term itself being a skeuomorph here) appeared in February on the streaming service.

Like many viewers, I consumed “Love” more or less as if it were a long movie with an extended intermission in the middle, watching four or five episodes in a row and then the other five or six the next day. On streaming services, the episodes are always released all at once, so hardly anyone sticks to the episode-a-week format of traditional broadcasting. Audiences have reimagined the TV experience for themselves even as producers continue to mimic the format of the network sitcom.

For example, each episode of “Love” is about a half-hour long, as if it could be inserted within the primetime lineup of NBC or CBS, which is structured around half-hour and hour-long blocks for organizational simplicity, so that viewers always know when to tune in for their favorite programs. “Love” was never required to fit within a programming block, and as a result there is a little less rigidity in terms of episode length (it frequently runs a little long), but essentially it still conceives of itself as a half-hour sitcom—not in order to accommodate the programming schedule of a network but for the same reason that landscape painters paint landscapes: that’s their art form, and the half-hour sitcom, too, is an art form, transcending the early structures that birthed it.

Or is it only a (soon-to-be) skeuomorph? Can we distinguish between “organic” (and therefore permanent) artistic genres and those created at the behest of temporary technological dictates? You could argue that books themselves generally stop at a maximum of about a thousand pages only because of the weight of the objects that contain their text—a concern that e-readers will someday render irrelevant, freeing novels to go on forever if they’d like.

But while it’s not clear that anyone truly wants to read a million-page novel, it is fairly clear from the prevalence of “binge-watching” that viewers don’t actually prefer to consume TV shows in half-hour chunks. The shortness of television shows was once a natural outcome of their method of production—dramas and variety shows ran as long as an hour (including commercials), but as a TV crew was traditionally expected to put forth a new episode of its series every week (except during the “off-season”), it simply wouldn’t have been realistic to ask them to create more than 48 minutes of actual content. In the 1990s, a typical show like “Beverly Hills, 90210” yielded thirty episodes per year, filmed rapidly as it aired; movie-length narratives take longer to make.

But shows like “Love” (and “Master of None” and “The Man in the High Castle”) are not filmed serially. They’re filmed like movies (that is, all at once) and released like movies (again, all at once). The divisions are imposed in the writing and editing processes and then removed (or at least blurred) by the audiences who binge-watch them, one episode transitioning directly into the next as Netflix Post-Play takes over.

So here’s the question to which I’m leading up: why don’t Netflix and Amazon and Hulu just produce a bunch of five- to 10-hour movies (that we can pause and resume as we wish), instead of pretending to make TV shows? The particular structure of a TV episode (with its rapid ascension of conflict and necessity of regular pseudo-resolution, its tacked-on cliffhanger ensuring that audiences will tune in next week) represents to me a storytelling compromise rather than an artistic asset, and the compromise is no longer necessary. Freed of the usual artificial breakdown into mini-stories, the broader narrative of a “TV show” could take shape more organically.

What are we afraid of here? The continued dominance of the episodic format may only be a matter of marketing: people are addicted to “TV,” or at least they think they are, and without half-hour or hour-long episodes, content providers would have to call their products something else.

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