News Column

Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column

June 2, 2013


June 02--I had to see it for myself.

Seven years after the low-rated, brilliant FOX TV show "Arrested Development" went off the air, it returned via the streaming video service Netflix. Fifteen full episodes of a new season of a show many of us figured we'd never see again were suddenly released onto the Internet at about 2 a.m. May 26.

I was up late. I clicked on the first episode and watched for five minutes. It was hilarious. Now I could go to sleep. I would begin watching the rest later, but for now I was satisfied to know that the show's return was real and not some horrible Internet prank.

It didn't take long for critics to begin picking the show apart (before they'd seen the full run of intricately woven together episodes, of course). But whether you think the quality of a show that almost no one watched when it originally aired is great or disappointing, the return of the show is in itself remarkable.

The snowball effect of fans watching the first three seasons of the show on DVD and streaming Internet services and demanding that it be brought back prompted Netflix to pony up the money to get the new episodes made. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, AOL and others are now in a race to create original TV shows to pull eyeballs from the traditional broadcast networks and cable channels. Rabid online fans (myself included) are also responsible for paying $5.7 million collectively via the funding site Kickstarter to bring back another low-rated TV show that died after three seasons: "Veronica Mars" will be made into a movie by Austin filmmaker Rob Thomas using the money.

So what do two revived cult TV shows tell us about the way television is changing? Let's unpack what's happening:

The pace at which we're consuming TV is forever changed. That's not surprising. The rise of DVD boxed sets and digital video recorders brought us binge viewing and fueled the hunger for episodic TV like "Lost" and "Breaking Bad." But with shows such as "Arrested Development" and Netflix's "House of Cards," entire seasons of TV programming are being released at once. We still watch live events like the Super Bowl collectively, but it's getting harder to figure out how and when to handle spoilers (not ruining, say, a "Breaking Bad" cliffhanger for a friend who isn't caught up yet) and for TV critics to break down shows for readers in a way that makes sense.

Watching seasons of TV is becoming more like finishing part of a book series. Shows such as "Mad Men" still create chatter every week as viewers try to work through its layers and symbolism, but it's also not unusual for people hoping to catch up on a show to shotgun episodes over the summer, watching one after another.

Some viewers love that; marathoning episodes of "24" was always a great way to spend a brainless few hours. But I wonder if that hurts our ability to enjoy shows that are built on complexity and nuance.

Streaming boxes are taking off, but cable and satellite companies are fighting back. Apple, which helped upend the music and phone industries with its products, has been much slower and deliberate in trying to make its mark on TV. But its modest, $99 Apple TV box shows signs of accelerating traction. Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that 13 million of the streaming movies and TV devices have been sold. As of July last year, only 4 million had been sold. A close competitor, Roku, has sold about 5 million of its streaming video boxes, which sell for about $50 to $100.

Viewers are looking for new ways to get their TV shows and movies and not just on their mobile devices and computers. But none of these boxes is perfect, and that may be keeping some people on the fence about buying them. An Apple TV box can't access Amazon Instant Video or free episodes from TV network websites. The Roku doesn't do you much good if you want to see movies and TV shows you bought or rented from iTunes. (And neither box plays DVDs or Blu-ray movies.)

Perhaps the biggest value of the streamers is that they've gotten cable and satellite providers to quickly add more services for on-demand video, apps to schedule recordings and even ways to watch programming outside the home and on the go. If you haven't cut the cord on services like this, you may see a lot more options to make your TV viewing more flexible to combat the onslaught of online services.

Fans, it turns out, do have a voice. The loyalty of vocal online fans who vote with their DVD-buying dollars and Web episode downloads is as much responsible for the return of "Arrested Development" as Netflix's desire to pump up the number of its subscribers. Netflix doesn't plan to release information on how many people binged on episodes over Memorial Day weekend, but some unofficial reports suggest about 36 percent of Netflix viewers were streaming the show after the new season launch.

Shows that were once considered too niche to be successful on TV seem perfectly at home in the more targeted world of online video. The Internet fuels an ongoing cycle of viewing, criticism, discussion via social media, more viewing and, in some cases, action that results in real-life action as in the case of "Veronica Mars."

This weekend, Austin will host an ATX Television Conference, where beloved cult shows like "Friday Night Lights," "Boy Meets World" and "My So-Called Life" will be celebrated alongside hits like "Scandal" and "The Vampire Diaries." It seems fitting that one of the panels, "I Don't Watch TV ... but I Tweet" will cover the blurring line between traditional TV viewing and doing it online.

You can argue about the quality of what's online, the ease of getting to it if you have a spotty Internet connection or want to see something that's unavailable, and whether binge-watching is a good idea.

But the fragmented future of TV that we're beginning to live is one where there are more options for watching things on whatever device we like, whenever we want. There's a lot more freedom and a lot less structure.

There's even, surprisingly, a lot of life left after cancellation.


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