Regulation as a Storytelling Constraint

What’s interesting about the U.S. version of the Office is that, despite essentially building off of the same premise as its predecessor, it still manages to be hugely different than its British counterpart. Granted, both still manage to be wildly entertaining, but in pretty distinguishable ways.

Though you might be able to square away the content of the humor to the particular sensibilities of each show’s respective audience, some things don’t seem immediately obvious to attribute to cultural differences. For example, the pattern of British television shows more generally is repeated in the UK Office — that is, there’s only a few hour long episodes.

Mike and I were chilling out this weekend, and we hit upon a pretty cool rationale that ties concrete economic regulation of mass media in each country to the kinds of stories that artists can tell and the sorts of plot elements they can use.

I thought it was a pretty interesting idea since it implies that the way the government chooses to be involved in a medium (not only as censor) shapes the artistic, aesthetic elements that become widely distributed in the public sphere.

It’s been noted that the pattern of regulation for mass-media can be roughly grouped into two categories. There’s the BBC model, which combines government subsidy and support with editorial independence to choose what to air. This is, obviously, in the UK, but also prevalent in countries like Canada, Israel, and India.

There’s also the US model — which essentially introduces a principle of lassiez faire into the marketplace. Economically speaking, the U.S. model incentivizes corporations to develop shows that attempt to maximize property durability. That is, US TV content producers would ideally like to build a show that is low-cost, wildly popular, and can last for as long as possible. Indeed, the standard of domestic syndication is 100 episodes, and producers make this the key question for greenlighting proposed shows.

So what you see in U.S. television is the prevalence of the multi-season episodic-format for shows. If a strong plot arc exists, it exists in ways that don’t ultimately affect character development or situation. Dr. House will never stop being bitter. Jack Bauer will never stop fighting crime. And so on.

Writers are incentivized to create characters and plot devices that replay interactions, without leading to actual change. In the Office‘s last season, there was an entire plot arc about how Steve Carrell’s character was going to get promoted and leave. Result? He didn’t. And the Office moves into its next season.

But in the UK-version he just gets fired, and then the series ends. Why? I think it’s because the BBC model creates the economic enviroment for this to be possible. With subsidy and protection, the BBC (and organizations like it), maximize other features outside profitability. Most notably, they have the freedom to allow their writers to address a plot or story as they would prefer, as opposed to the lassiez-faire market constraints in the US that force storylines and situations to be entertaining for as long as possible.

As a result, you get a plotting structure that more closely resembles storytelling in other media like books or movies (see more on this below). Each show is recognizably a complete story from end-to-end.

To that end, the British Office is a complete artistic thought, with a defined storyline, and real changes in the situation of the characters. It makes “sense” as a whole. In contrast, the U.S. version is an ongoing thought, based more in the particular events of each episode, rather than set to depict broader shifts in the universe of the characters. It’s unclear where the show will eventually end up, and it’s put together episode by episode.

And, weirdly enough (at least in this construction), it’s tied to how television is regulated in both countries. Media organizations respond to their economic incentives and produce stories that reflect that underlying pattern accordingly.

What’s interesting is now you see the arrival of a hybrid-storyline in nearly all forms of media — it’s “multi-season”, but each “season” forms a single, stand-alone plotline. In the TV world, this is Heroes, 24, or Dexter. In the movie world, this is the emergence of standalone sequel bloat. (this summer season has already seen several 3rd and 4th installments of series — Die Hard, Pirates, etc etc)


Mike had a theory involving TiVo and the Internet as to why, but I’ll leave that until later this week, because this post is already ridiculously long.


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