Apropos my previous blog posting, I am simultaneously amused and perplexed by the number of people who, being afficionados of [X], read a statement of the form "I do not like [X]" and parse it as "[X] is bad".
(Tag with: collective logic FAIL, what are they teaching them these days, death of western civilization, film at 11, etcetera.)
Mind you, it's given me some food for thought. In particular, I'm trying to figure out precisely what it is about the structure of small-screen entertainment that is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera; and why SF on TV is so generally identified with that form.
I suspect, after sleeping on it, that in large part it boils down to the cost structure of network TV: to the obligation on the producers to deliver captive eyeballs to advertisers. This is guaranteed to fuck with dramatic structure, world-building, and characterization — especially when they mess with the plot to reduce audience leakage due to channel-hopping during intermissions — and it has long-term implications for written fiction too, as the uptake of ebooks and alternative delivery models based on the internet progresses.
Consider a script. A script consists of pages each of which represents one minute of on-screen action. It typically runs to 250 words, most of which are dialog. A 42 minute TV show is 10,500 words (a novelette, in fiction-not-script terms), but breaks down into four scenes, each of which needs a near cliff-hanger ending (prior to the advertising break, to keep the viewers wanting to see more), and a restart at the beginning (to drag in new viewers who have channel-hopped over from a less compelling production). Of each roughly 2,500 word scene, then, about 250-500 words will be wasted (dramatically speaking) on reestablishing the action, and the last 500-1,000 words goes on setting up a mini-climax (except in the first and final scenes, where you need a setup and a climax for dramatic, not advertising, purposes). Thus, the 10,500 word script actually contains about 7,000-8,000 words of meat, or 28-32 minutes of non-repetitive on-screen action to propel the story forward. (As a reference point, a 8000 word short story, to an average reading speed of 350 words per minute, takes 22 minutes to plough through. I'm ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn't belong in a script.)
Here's the rub: the ideational density of a TV or film production, to a viewer experiencing it in real time, is lower than that of a work of written fiction is to a reader — an hour of TV with ads (and spurious scene-based setup/teardown) is equivalent to 20-25 minutes of written fiction. To keep the viewers from getting bored, it needs to add eyeball candy of some kind. What pushes primate attention buttons? Sex (hot actors) and bright colours and loud noises (explosions in spaaaaace!). These are low-level hard-wired stimuli that we can't easily ignore: if we could, we wouldn't be human. So in it goes. But there's an arms race going on: every other series on TV is doing the same thing, so our series has to be sexier and flashier than theirs if we're not going to bleed audience share.
Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed — not stroked lightly, but mashed hard by an insensitive thumb driven by advertising sales — and that's when they'll start leaving in droves. But most people have been trained to accept lots of advertising and the classic four-part structure of the ongoing TV drama episode from an early age. (Not me. Due to an accident of childhood, I watched virtually no commercial TV, and didn't have access to a colour TV or a video recorder until I was in my 20s. Yes, I am an alien.)
Two questions arise:
Firstly. Is it possible to do space opera on the small screen properly, if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure? (I'm purposely ignoring the BBC drama department in this context because (a) their programming schedule isn't too dissimilar to commercial network TV, and (b) they're not notably into space opera.)
Secondly. If written commercial fiction succeeds in moving online, are we going to see a breakdown of the 80-year-old contractual boilerplate that bans in-novel advertising: and if so, what are the literary consequences going to be? We know what they look like in dead tree form, and it ain't pretty — what I'm interested in is the electronic remix, because it sure as hell won't stop at static ads: we could see targeted audience demographic product placement in novels, tailored to the advertising profile of the particular reader (so that the product in question changes depending on who's reading the ebook).