How Binge-Watching Has Changed TV Writing (Guest Column)

Illustration by Niv Bavarsky

Hollywood Reporter columnist Marc Bernardin argues that writing for television used to be about the cliffhangers that would entice the viewer to come back for more. Now, it's all about how to break the "10-hour movie."

The phenomenon known as “bingeing” isn’t a particularly new one, though it might feel like it is. People have been inhaling television at a questionable pace since the first season of The X-Files was released as a DVD box set in 2000. (Yes, you could’ve taped blocks of Twilight Zone marathons, which started in the early 1980s, but only the rare nerd did that.) And there has been “TV” available on the internet for more than a decade now. Remember 2006’s lonelygirl15? How about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which Joss Whedon dropped in 2008? 

But until 2013, when Netflix released House of Cards, there had never been first-run episodic television content released that could be ingested all at once — with an entire season available at the push of a button.

Writing television is many things — a craft, an art, a living — but it is, at its most basic, a war for retention. How do you keep an audience’s attention from commercial break to commercial break, from episode to episode, from season to season? If you can’t figure out how to prevent the viewers from abandoning your show, it doesn’t matter how great it is … you’ll never get to keep making it. Hence the artificial peril writers work hard to generate at the end of every act. “Oh, God, will Magnum find a way to P.I. his way out of that alligator pit? Better not change channels!”

As the way viewers consume television changes, so must the way writers produce television. Matthew Weiner knew that, even though Mad Men was airing on ad-supported AMC, the far bigger audience for his show would be after broadcast, on DVD or streaming, formats that didn’t have commercials. So why write his show building toward ad-mandated act breaks that wouldn’t be there in the future?

Premium cable removed even the barest whiff of commercials. Game of Thrones functions, structurally, far differently than Once Upon a Time does. So GoT creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can spend an entire episode swirling in mood and intrigue and sexposition so long as there’s one big revelation to spin into the next episode. It works because they know there’s nothing extraneous to punt us away during that hour. Our eyes belong to them.

Television has always been pulp. Periodical. Serial fiction. Told in chunks that later coalesce into a whole. The Binge, though, is something totally different. It delivers the whole all at once. The viewer expects to be in for the long haul, so the writer doesn’t necessarily have to systematically woo him or her. 

Crafting narrative for The Binge is a different affair. For one, you don’t have a “previously on.” No one talks about how much of a storytelling tool the “previously on” is: You can center viewers’ expectations for each given episode, prime them with information they might’ve forgotten — or, in truth, never actually got in the first place. (No one ever fact-checks the “previously on.” It really is a deviously useful bit of real estate.) A streamer might offer a “previously on,” but if you’re rolling from episode to episode without a break, you skip right over it.

The phrase du jour, “We’re breaking a 10- hour movie,” is apt when writing for The Binge. You need to have reversals and conflicts, triumphs and pitfalls, but they don’t need to be delivered as regularly as they need to in broadcast and basic cable. The narrative can pull like taffy — or can race like a Ferrari. The first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things was often referred to as a mixture of Stephen King, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. Absolutely true, but as much as the emotional heart of Stranger Things was E.T., its structural soul was a Goonies-esque sprint.

Hulu has decided to split the difference and deliver an offbeat hybrid of the two formats. Like a street-corner narrative dealer, they let you binge the first few episodes of shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Runaways and the upcoming Castle Rock. Get that sticky-sweet taste of story glory. But then you gotta come back week after week for your steady fix.

It’s a model that offers the best of both worlds. (Of course, I might be a little biased as I wrote on the first season of Castle Rock.) Writers get to play into the serial strengths of classic TV structure — after all, you can’t really have cliffhangers if the danger resolves seconds later — while still taking advantage of the intravenous joy gleaned from that first heady afternoon on the couch.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.