In Treatment and Distribution Experimentation

While curiously Googling In Treatment, I happened upon these two posters advertising the show, one for season one and one for season three. They indicate that, unlike the typical trend of airing one episode a week used by most television shows, when In Treatment originally aired, HBO aired several episodes a week. For season one, the episodes were aired on the same day of the week as their respective sessions took place, whereas for season three, two episodes a night were aired for two nights a week. Airing multiple episodes a week in this manner could have served up to three distinct purposes. First, particularly for season one, airing one episode per weeknight provides a connection to the show’s content and makes the audience feel as if they are watching the show in real time (though admittedly it’s not exact, given that some of the sessions occur in the morning or afternoon). Second, airing multiple episodes a week allows the show’s creators to more easily get away with fitting more content into a single season, which is helpful for a show in which each narrative is only explored in one fifth of the episodes. Third, the distribution pattern allows audiences to more easily recall previous sessions with a given patient and thus follow the narratives.

In our presentation on the Netflix distribution model, Lindsey and I discussed Netflix’s acceptance of the binge-watching trend in the distribution of original content, as well as the fact that the precedent for Netflix’s subscription-based revenue and subsequent ability to target niche markets was previously set by subscription channels like HBO and Showtime. In Treatment may provide a link between the two concepts. If HBO’s subscription model allows for greater experimentation and innovation than advertising, as we suggested in our presentation might be the case, then that model may be what allowed HBO to risk airing In Treatment five episodes a week and attempt to break its audience’s viewing habits–and then change the distribution pattern again for a new season.

Another factor that may have contributed to HBO’s ability to experiment with airing patterns is the variety of viewing options at the audience’s disposal. The bottom of the season one poster advertises that, if watching one episode every weeknight does not fit into their schedule, they can “catch up with back-to-back episodes every Sunday,” record episodes on demand, stream them online, or download them from iTunes. While many of these options are available for most TV shows, it is curious that HBO would specifically advertise the availability of such options, and suggests their acute awareness that either they were taking a big risk by experimenting with distribution patterns, or their audience needed a variety of viewing options regardless of the format and distribution of the show (or both).

Thus, In Treatment provides an interesting parallel to the discussion about the Netflix distribution model of releasing an entire season all at once, and contributes a valuable case study to the questions that such discussion raises: At what pace are different television shows best viewed, and how might that pace be informed by the content of the narrative itself? Is there such a thing as a best pace at which to view a particular television show, or is it entirely dependent on the individual viewer and their own choices and viewing habits? What business models best allow for distribution experimentation and risk-taking?

1 thought on “In Treatment and Distribution Experimentation

  1. I would agree that there is perhaps a best way to view a show and that some shows are more suited to binge viewing than to weekly episodic releases–it has to do with the narrative complexity, and that the more coinciding narratives and character heavy a show is, the better it is viewed over a slower time frame.

    Even within the Netflix model, this holds true. Arrested Development has always been praised for its narrative complexity and self-referentiality that could only be appreciated over many seasons. Its first three seasons were released weekly, but with the fourth season on Netflix, it was released all at once. The writers definitely played more with overlapping time frames and jokes that could only be appreciated after revealing the whole story, but this seemed not to work as well in a binge-watching type situation. I watched the show not all at once, but maybe over the course of three or four sittings, and definitely found it obnoxious to have the show keep referencing to and replaying events that I’d watched not 40 minutes earlier. I think that because the show was so complex, and considering what the writers and directors were trying to accomplish by retelling the same events in a different light, it might have lent itself better to a weekly release. Then, recapping events would have served in the same way as a “Last week on Arrested Development…” opening might have, and not seemed as much like the show was beating you over the head with its narrative complexity. Because of the repetition, it actually sort of dumbed down the complexity for me. It’s almost no wonder that fans have recut the season into a chronological edit that tells the story linearly.

    Arrested Development is complex for its overlapping narrative, but I also think that shows with complex character arcs necessitate slower weekly viewings. Take Boardwalk Empire, for example. I started binge-watching this show to keep me entertained on really long airplane rides home during the holidays. A couple hours in, I found myself bored and looking around the cabin at other people and even the airplane’s TV because I was becoming so overwhelmed with the multiple story lines and dozens of characters to remember. I was happy when someone got killed, because it was one less person I had to worry about remembering. Then, this summer, I slowed down and watched it on a daily or weekly basis and found it much easier to follow. I could process the previous week’s events because I wasn’t endlessly being bogged down by the show’s narrative density.

    In contrast, I don’t think that something like House of Cards or even Dexter (which I binge-watched in its early seasons when it was actually a respectable show) are quite as complex, and therefore lend themselves better to seeing all at once. They’re both still fairly complex-narrative shows, but aren’t so dense that you might need a little time between episodes to take a breather and think about the events that have transpired. The plot is interesting, but the events are straightforward and the characters are manageable.

    Put succinctly, I definitely feel that the more information a show has to offer, the more it requires time to process it. A show like In Treatment is still complex, but there are a limited number of characters, and it focuses on a single event in “real time”–a half-hour meeting in a therapist’s office. Something like Arrested Development or Boardwalk Empire has so many characters and story lines that it requires some time to process.

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