Once upon a time, in a galaxy alarmingly similar to our own, television programming was relatively straight-and-narrow with regard to the confines of each particular program. A police procedural was a police procedural; a soap opera was a soap opera; cartoons were cartoons. There was a reason for this: advertisers wanted to get maximum exposure for their ad dollars. Every viewer watching "As The World Turns" who didn’t have the duty of buying their household’s soap was a wasted viewer. In order to ensure that TV programs maximized the homogeneity of their audiences, networks strived to create programs that would deliver one specific audience without fail.
Nowadays, well, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to! Cartoons for grown-ups, soap operas with postmodern plotlines, police procedurals built around a single murder — for a number of reasons, small screen programming is no longer entirely geared toward creating an entirely uniform audience. It’s also become much more narratively adventurous. On the most recent season of "Mad Men," arguably the most critically acclaimed show on TV, nothing much happened in terms of plot for most of the season — unthinkable even 10 years ago. "Breaking Bad" has achieved the miraculous feat of being structured as one long movie for the entirety of its first four and a half seasons. One such explanation for this experimentation — that cable networks are simply trying to capture more affluent audiences by creating higher-quality programming than the major networks — was explored in an article I wrote for Indiewire earlier this year.
While that may be one cause of the breakdown of the narrative structure of traditional series, there’s another possibility worth considering. As the internet becomes an increasingly viable channel for watching TV — and, for many young people, their primary source — the barriers that would otherwise block certain types of programming from viewers are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
For example, it’s currently just as easy for an internet-utilizing viewer to check out a British or Korean or Israeli TV series (legally, these days) as it is to watch something made in the good old U.S. of A. Due to cultural differences, the demographics that foreign programs are built to target don’t necessarily correlate with American one. In Korea, it could be the case that a traditional demographic doesn’t exist in the U.S., or that the way to target a common section of the population — say, men 18-34 — is totally different from what's aimed at them here (cop shows, action shows, etc.).
Cultural differences alone can make totally generic programs abroad seem mind-blowingly innovative over here — like the Korean drama "Boys Before Flowers." Available on Hulu, the teen-geared series is set at an elite Korean boarding school, and centers on a dry cleaner’s daughter who, after saving the life of a student, earns a scholarship to attend the institution. Part "Gossip Girl," part "Arrested Development," the show can veer from thriller-and-intrigue-heavy to totally zany in a matter of seconds, with jarring results for this viewer. "Boys Before Flowers," and other foreign series like it, are competing with American series online for viewership, offering unusual and fresh blends of genres that may not exist in the US.
Increasingly, American networks are taking action to protect themselves from this challenge. When you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: one of the most popular shows on TV, "Homeland," has been adapted by Gideon Raff from his own Israeli series (also streaming on Hulu). Obviously, that decision has been an extremely successful one, although "Homeland" doesn’t flout traditional American TV narratives the way that, say, "Boys Before Flowers" does — it is, after all, a thriller series, plain and simple – but it does leave you wondering how much "Prisoners of War," Raff’s original series, could have eaten into American TV series’ viewership online if Showtime hadn’t decided to co-opt its popularity with an adaptation.
Co-opting the competition doesn’t always work wonders: "Veep," HBO's attempt to have Armando Ianucci replicate the success he had with BBC series "The Thick Of It," has come under fire from some critics — including Matt Zoller Seitz — for lacking a certain urgency. While "The Thick Of It" and Ianucci’s feature film spin-off "In The Loop" bursts with a hilariously rancorous British wit, "Veep" takes the Ianucci formula and softens it. The funniest character from "The Thick Of It," the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker (a brilliant Peter Capaldi), has no counterpart to be found in the HBO show. (Hulu, the most consistent home though not the only home for international TV on the web, co-produced and premiere the most recent season of "The Thick Of It" with BBC.)
These transfers run the risk of losing the bite of their original iterations (a familiar refrain when looking at American remakes of foreign films as well), another reason viewers may be inclined to continually go directly to the source online. Eventually, there will be a huge international hit streaming on the web that gets thrust into direct competition with the largest American series, either because it isn’t adapted for TV here or because its adaptation fails to sway online viewership from the original. When that happens, we’ll be witnessing a real-time shifting of the TV industry on a grand scale. Since TV’s invention, networks have competed against other networks — and, surely, against other forms of media — but never before has ABC had to consider the programming of a Korean station as something they are in direct competition with. On the internet, it all plays on the same tablet or computer screen — and sites like Hulu, Netflix, Brit TV streaming site Acorn TV and Korean and Latino series hub DramaFever.com are continually adding to what's available from the rest of the world.
Like the effects of the conflict between the big networks and cable stations, there are different ways this competition could play out. In one version, we could see the majors fighting to make their series more and more original and inventive, in order to compete with the exotic narrative structures being offered by foreign series. In another, we could have the majors fully settling into their roles of providing the most formulaic, genre-based programming available, thereby admitting that they simply can’t afford to try to maintain a vice-like grip on a majority of TV viewers, and instead relegating themselves to a definitely smaller — but loyal — audience. Either way, the once-unshakeable hegemony of the big American networks is taking yet another direct hit.