Towards a Theory of Television Snackability

Towards a Theory of Television Snackability

What makes you want to watch and watch and watch?

At first, they told us what to watch and when.

There were a small number of television networks, and they programmed certain shows at certain times of day. The earliest ones were live, which meant that even if we wanted reruns we couldn’t have them. Television, whose shows are a fancy pretext to keep you in your seat between advertisements, developed a revenue model predicated on scarcity: The show was only going to be on once, so you had to watch it then. The large number of viewers made the airtime very desirable. Advertisers bought advertising and we bought their products.

But like every technology, over time television has become a good deal less scarce. The Betamax Case made it legal to make your own copies of television shows and watch them when you want; the DVR made it trivial to skip commercials; DVDs, iTunes downloads, and streaming (to say nothing of illegal distribution) make us little networks unto ourselves, able to schedule our prime time whenever we want it.

Recently, my girlfriend decided she wanted to watch Mad Men from the beginning. I was excited about the fourth season starting, and she, having never seen an episode, wanted to hop on the bandwagon. So one Saturday morning, I gave her my copies (I have them archived on Betamax. Or something.), handed her the remote, and went upstairs to do some vitally important work on the Internet.

Time passed, as it does on 4chan—sorry, I mean “when you’re doing vitally important work on the internet”—and before I knew it it was the late afternoon, and she had finished most of the first season. I was astonished: Mad Men is a dense and sometimes arduous show. It rewards close, sustained attention, which is difficult to keep up for long periods of time. Or so I thought.

As she watched the rest of seasons 1 through 3, I sat in on many episodes, and was astonished at how easy the show was to watch in large doses. (Part of this may have had to do with the fact that I’d seen it before, freeing me up to notice the exquisite details of the environment and of the narrative construction.) I didn’t even mind the slow start to season 3.

Within ten days, we’d finished three seasons, and started the fourth, which had begun recording on DVR. Over forty episodes. Please don’t do the “average hours per day” math. It’s just depressing. But it struck me that this pattern of technologically enabled binge-viewing is becoming more and more typical. It has certainly happened to me more than once, both with new shows and old (by the way, there’s an obscene amount of 30 Rock available to stream on Netflix).

Since it’s a decades-old form of entertainment, we’ve already got a substantial critical vocabulary for describing types of television. We talk about format (30 or 60 or 120 minutes; special or MOW or mini-series or series), we talk about genre (and an increasing number of sub- and micro-genres made possible by digital distribution and the concomitant proliferation of channels), we talk about tone (funny or solemn—the main difference between The X-Files and Warehouse 13).

To these I would like to add another descriptive category, one that encodes a show’s capacity to be watched for hours at a stretch. In deference to the terminology of the food industry, who have invested untold billions in the ongoing effort to keep our hands moving automatically and interminably between the bag of Doritos and our mouths, I’d like to call this new category “snackability.”

I have some preliminary thoughts about what makes a TV show highly snackable—what snackability is. But first, it’s worth a few words about what snackability isn’t.

Snackability is only a function of format to the extent that a snackable television show will have more than one episode. Specials, movies of the week, sports—these are excluded from the snackable category because they are incapable of producing the automatic reflex to watch the next episode. But beyond that, any format can be snackable: half-hour, hour, two-hour, whether there are six episodes or six hundred.

Likewise, snackability is not a function of genre or tone. Law & Order can be just as snackable as 30 Rock—the entire TNT network stands as a testimony to this fact.

Neither is it a matter of quality or personal taste… how many times have you automatically watched the next episode of a show you knew to be terrible?

So snackability—and this is where I think I may spark some disagreement—is not merely a matter of personal preference. When I described above as “a show’s capacity to be watched for hours,” the passive voice wasn’t an accident. I believe that snackability is something that inheres in the show itself, and is not entirely viewer dependent.

So what makes a show snackable? Part of it may have to do with the rising tide of serialization. Even TV shows without the density of The Wire or Mad Men—shows where the proper unit of narrative measurement seems to be the season rather than the episode—have begun to partake in some aspects of serialization. People get married and stay married; people die and stay dead. Though the Simpsons habitually jokes about the way, no matter how egregious the misadventures of the episode, things will revert to their default state at the beginning of the next show, these jokes increasingly fall flat, since they are made at the expense of a straw man: The kind of episodic 3-camera comedy that was once ubiquitous and is now an endangered species.

The idea that you are in the middle of things—that you are being pulled along by the current of a larger story that continues from episode to episode—may be one thing that keeps you pressing that play button.

I’d add to this that the show must have a strong point of view, which usually means a clearly defined fantasy world and a strong central character. It must be compelling—literally. When in thrall to a snackable show, we are compelled—robbed of choice—and it takes more effort to break the cycle of the play button than it does to give into it.

The experience of watching a snackable show is transporting; you feel like you’re lifted out of your life and dropped into another. The care put into the creation of the fictional world—consistency of tone, quality of detail—helps this narrative transporation. (As a corollary, highly snackable shows are anesthetizing and might have some kind of addictive properties.)

A strong central character, giving us a dominant, authoritative, stable point of view with which we can identify, cements the hold of a snackable show. This one of two reasons why The Wire can’t be, strictly speaking, snackable: David Simon identified and worked against a tendency in contemporary prestige television—dating in its current incarnation to The Sopranos—to structure the show around a Shakespearean protagonist. The Wire is by contrast, novelistic and multi-vocal. The principled refusal to let us know where we stand may be politically laudable, but dramatically it is alienating (in the Brechtian sense), and we are always aware of the show’s status as artifact, as a made thing.

The second reason The Wire can’t be snackable is that its world, though finely wrought and fully realized, is sociological, not fantastical. It is meant to be a subset of the viewer’s world, not a self-contained narrative space, and we are constantly reminded of this. This precludes the kind of captivating narrative transportation that I’ve identified as a key feature of snackability.

For what it’s worth, the prevailing tendency at this moment, what I’ve called our second golden age of television, seems to be toward strong central characters and fantastical worlds. (Even when shows are meant to take place in the “real world,” that term is not meant sociologically; rather, I think, it is used to dissociate the shows from the genres of science fiction and fantasy, to which closer analysis would reveal they belong. I’m looking at you, Burn Notice, and at you, Mad Men.)

Practically, television has had to change its business model. The new models—subscription (as with residential cable TV or with Netflix) or a la carte (iTunes, Amazon, DVD)—seem to be predicated on abundance. Either we pay for access to an impossibly large stream of content or else we pay (more) for just the pieces we want. (The advertisements on cable TV, which mean I’m paying for the privilege of being advertised to, are an enduring frustration.) These models seem to be the new norm; the early days of Hulu were a sustained experiment in reviving the free, ad-supported model and have given way to a subscription model in Hulu Plus.

This is part of a larger move from scarcity to abundance, and this is why snackability is important to the economic future of television. We’ve become less like a docile herd and more like a Matrix-like hive of individuals on life support. They can’t tell us what to watch and when, but they can make it so that we never shut it off.

18 Comments on “Towards a Theory of Television Snackability”

  1. Liz #

    I always called HGTV and Food Network shows “brain candy.” Little neatly wrapped nuggets of shows that I completely lost track of the time and now it’s midnight and prime time is rerunning. The thing that these shows lack, however, is the continuing narrative. They’ve got the strong point of view (host) and clearly defined fantasy world (you know three people did not paint that room in an hour), but there’s no continuing story.


  2. hanncommander #

    Urban Dictionary’s word of the day for this past Tuesday defined this very behavior.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I steal most of my good ideas from Urban Dictionary.


  3. stokes #

    So wait, you’re claiming Burn Notice is a science fiction show? Can you unpack that a little for us?


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I meant to imply that Burn Notice is, at its core, a fantasy, and that Michael Westen has more in common with a magical wizard than with anything recognizably human.


  4. Tulse #

    Damnit, now I’m hungry.

    You’re using the term “snackable” in what seems an odd way to me, but perhaps I associate it too much with a value judgement — shows to me are “snackable” when, however addictive they are, they don’t require much effort or thought (like potato chips), each iteration is similar (like potato chips), and watching a lot at one time probably isn’t all that great for you (like potato chips). Given this, well-written serial dramas don’t seem like “snacks” to me, in that you can’t dip in just anywhere and turn off your brain — you have to know where the series arc is, and pay close attention to the events, but they at the same time reward with a superior aesthetic experience.

    By contrast, something like Law and Order seems to me to be the paradigm of snacking, as its formulaic nature is very soothing, you really don’t need to know any backstory to watch an episode, and in the end the writing is not all that artistically challenging. (Alternatively, shows that one has seen many times can also become snacks just through familiarity — I can dip into several episodes of Buffy whenever I want because I know the series well, and so am already caught up on the overall arcs and character relationships.)

    On a side note, if you think Burn Notice more properly belongs to the realm of science fiction, is there then any action-oriented television (or for that matter forensics-based police procedural) that doesn’t?


  5. Mike #

    I was with you until you said “The Wire” isn’t snackable. as someone who binged on all five seasons in a relatively short time, I think it was completely snackable. the fact that there was no single central character doesn’t matter because there were a LOT of compelling ones. and similarly, just because the world it depicts was “sociological” doesn’t really change things — for me it was so different from MY world that it was no more or less fictiony than anything else.

    Then I went back and reskimmed your post and realized you don’t really make a case, you just make a bunch of assertions. so, I like the concept of snackability and I’d be interested in figuring out what makes a show snackable, but I think you’ve got a lot more “towards” to work on


  6. Rob #

    I think that what makes a show “snackable” is a matter of personal taste and viewing habits. Like, I could watch just about an infinite number of It’s Always Sunny episodes in a row, and it doesn’t have an ongoing narrative or single central character. Still, thanks for adding to my media vocab.


  7. Turin Hurinson #

    “Snackability” is a strange word for this concept, I think; the main problem is that one major thing I associate with “snack” is “small” or “brief”… I don’t sit down and “snack” for five hours straight. I do, however, sit down and watch five straight hours of The Wire or Buffy or Stargate:SG1. I consider Law & Order to be much more snack-food-ish, but because it’s easy to go into and come out of without any background knowledge, and because I *don’t* feel the need to go on to the next episode — after an episode of Law & Order, I feel like I’ve had enough to last me until my next full meal, i.e. when I next sit down to watch five hours in a row of a more substantial show.

    Other than that, I agree about snackability (as you’ve defined it) and it’s importance for the new economics of TV. And in fact I’d say it’d replacing snackability as I’d define it, because since I don’t ever channel-surf anymore (there being no need), I never stumble across episodes of Law & Order, a snackable show if there ever was one, and decide to keep watching. So I almost never watch Law & Order, and instead watch The Wire and Buffy and SG1 all the time.


  8. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    It’s true that “snackability” may sound trivializing. I mean it without negative associations — just to refer to that property of a food or a television show that makes it easy to consume repeatedly.

    In other words, some snacks are carrot sticks, and some are delicious, delicious Fritos.


  9. Micah #

    I think you’re on to something in the broad outlines, but as others have said, both the term and its definition need work. The Wire is definitely ‘snackable’ in your sense, and yes describing it that way definitely doesn’t work.


  10. Micah #

    Gah! Stupid auto-correction! “…and *yet* describing…”


  11. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    I think I did my larger point a disservice mentioning The Wire at all. It’s a corner case—being a great work of art, it defies a lot of categorization—and inviting it into the conversation means inviting all of us to get hung up trying to account for it.

    But wouldn’t you say that the activity of watching six episodes of The Wire is qualitatively different than watching six episodes of Law and Order? Something else is going on in one than in the other.


  12. Timothy J Swann #

    I think that if we’re talking about snackability, we should mention the act of bingeing more than implicitly (i.e. on Mad Men). There are some shows that get watched very quickly, i.e. for me, Community, BSG, which is only possible because of coming at them after the fact (thanks to DVD boxsets and/or the internet).

    I actually find the thing that makes things least snackable is similarity of formula – e.g. House or Desperate Housewives – somehow I couldn’t watch too many at once as that would highlight their greater similarity?


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Right. The point, which may have gotten obscured, is that the content of TV adapts to the change in technology and business model. Whereas it would have mattered thirty years ago whether a TV show could be consumed in binges, digital archiving and distribution makes it a vital quality today.

      Re: similarity of format — That’s a really good point. There’s a particular balance between familiarity (which is reassuring) and variety (which is exciting).

      In other words, there’s a reason the mythology episodes were the most exciting of the X-Files, and that the monster of the week stuff was kind of meh.


      • Timothy J Swann #

        What made television successful then is inverted now, and thus we are in a golden age. But I imagine the people of the time would/do have a problem with totally non-episodic shows of now. The question is, where can television go next.


  13. Simber #

    You’re definately on to something here, but as yet it lacks in overthink ;-)
    I have the same association with ‘snackable’ als Tulse, and I strongly agree with Mike that The Wire is eminently snackable in your definition. I would argue that watching the whole of The Wire in one gulp (I did it in about ten days last Chrismas) is a far more satisfying and affecting experience, if only for the fact you don’t need half an episode remembering who all those characters are again. To me it felt more like reading a great, big novel.

    Which had me thinking: isn’t there some historical parallel for this transition from serialized fiction to singular works? Well, surprise, there actually is: Many of the great novels of the 19th century, from Anna Karenina to Great Expectations, were first published in serialized form in popular magazines, and were only bound as one novel after they finished. (This also explains why these novels are often so big: the authors were paid for each instalment, so they could make more if they wrote more.)

    So maybe it would be interesting to make a scale for tv-shows with one end for the more ‘bookish’ shows like Mad Men or The Wire and the other for the more serial (or rather cereal) shows of which you can consume just one a day.

    Then the only thing you need to do is explain your perverse enjoyment of Law&Order. I can hardly watch one episode, how you can just breeze into another is beyond me ;-)


  14. cat #

    This article ranks high on the scale of snackability. I look forward to more.

    To bring in the TFT podcast, how do Glee and Gossip Girl rank in terms of snackability? I think that Glee would not be snackable as friends have watched episodes back to back in extended viewing sessions and called attention to dramatic changes and awkward moments. (See my theory of the writer’s intent to move 3 steps forward and 2 steps back on Glee and GG) Teen/Children shows (Does the 30-minute length of the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows make them more snackable)? Family shows? I only ask because many of your examples are geared towards adults and 1 hour long episodes.


Add a Comment