Story + Data: Kevin Spacey Makes The Case For Art In A Post-Pilot, Screen-Agnostic Future

Perhaps it takes a good actor to get across what should be obvious by now. Kevin Spacey's thespian stylings were downright inspirational in delivering the goods at the Edinburgh Television Festival last week. But Spacey did better than deliver the screen-agnostic gospel with feeling. He made a smart case for how the emerging multi-screen and on-demand delivery mechanisms matter when it comes to art. Good for him.

His James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture recounts his shopping around the idea of "House of Cards" to every major network, all of whom asked him for a “pilot.” He outlines how costly and wasteful this U.S.-based pilot process is. Scores of unused episodes are discarded, at worst -- and at best, result in short series runs that sprint toward almost-inevitable cancellation. And Spacey implies that the pilot process may have something to do with that. The pilot structure requires that the first episode of any series sell itself, its characters and its backstory so concisely in an hour that the art almost always suffers ... as does the audience.

“We wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell.” Characters and themes would be revealed over time and at a pace justified by the narrative, not the demands of a pilot. Netflix was the only one that would let them do it the more artful way because it didn't feel that “auditioning” the idea with audiences was necessary. They already had the data gleaned from millions of accounts and their detailed viewing habits to tell them this combination of story, actors and themes would resonate. Data didn't diminish the interests of art. It served them, if we follow Spacey’s reasoning.

The Netflix distribution model of releasing all episodes at once told broadcasters how much control audiences actually crave. When they love something, they want to binge. “Then we should let them binge,” he says. He playfully recounts how many people stop him on the street to say “thanks, you sucked three days out of my life.”

His business case is equally succinct and powerful. TV can learn the lesson the music industry didn’t. If you give people what they want, in the form they want it, whenever they want it, and at a reasonable price, they more likely will pay for it than steal it.

His prediction is that the distinction among screens will fall away. Is a TV on an iPad not a TV show? he asks. Is a 13-hour episodic series a TV show or a film? These will become labels relevant only to managers and media executives who need them to cut deals. But they will have little to do with consumers and how and what they want to enjoy. For them, “it’s just story."

Like a good actor with a great script, Spacey brings it all to crescendo when he focuses on audience. People want stories -- “they are dying for them,” he concludes. “They are rooting for us to give them the right things.” They will proselytize via countless channels the things they love. “All we have to do is give it to them.” And shame on us if we -- the creators of story --  are not able to satisfy that hunger.

We only have snippets in the YouTube video that has already been viewed over 600,000 times -- not typical for a piece addressing any trade group. But herein is an amazingly succinct rallying cry and pep talk to the industry. For all of the challenges digital platforms are posing to traditional ways of doing things, and the fortunes those habits made for a lot of people, these new platforms have a way of exposing some glaring inefficiencies that were tolerated for little reason for too long.

The technology and the distribution systems are capable of opening up new possibilities for art, and even commerce. At the other end of Spacey’s vision of a screen-agnostic future we may get richer and deeper storytelling that the pilot-seeded, weekly, seasonal distribution systems never allowed.

Is a profitable TV business based on these structures really visible from here? Probably not. Spacey is free to spin out these scenarios because he was its earliest winner. Whether this model really scales to an entire industry -- or whether it should -- isn’t clear quite yet. His hosannas to “freedom” are no less empty than a politician’s.

There is a counterpoint, albeit one that nibbles at details rather than at the core truths. But the “freedom” he describes of anywhere, everywhere, personalized on-demand media access is framed as a freedom from the dictates and predilections of media owners and distributors.

But do we want freedom from ritual? Media ritual is not “freedom.” It is a social exercise played out in theaters for centuries and at water coolers and cubicle desks in decades of mornings after. In fact, a joy of being part of an audience is simultaneity and mutual surprise. The timed dispensation of episodic media and film has some social function and joy in live sharing, now enhanced and extended via mobile and social media.

Sure -- there is virtual social engagement for a show like "House of Cards" or "Orange Is The New Black." But I have yet to have a conversation with another live being about either show that approaches the involvement of a “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” These sorts of conversations do have to do with timing, the aftermath of surprise, and the immediate need to locate and explore other people’s synchronous responses. It does make me wonder whether on demand-only media experiences lose some social mojo because they are highly privatized in their distribution.

All of this remains to be seen, of course. But kudos to Spacey for expanding the conversation about omni-screen distribution to include the aesthetic and experiential dimensions. There is a great conversation -- and even greater creativity -- to be realized beyond TV as we have known it. 

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