Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Times change, technology improves, new delivery systems are invented, and new habits of behavior are formed for how we consume entertainment.
I sort of know how those old time directors felt. Like I recently mentioned, when I directed sitcoms for standard TV, some of the framing looks weird on HD. But who knew at the time? (Okay, everyone but me, but STILL…)
Same is true for writing. Practically all the sitcom scripts I wrote were designed to be shown for a half-hour once a week. There was no such thing as “binge-watching.” Even when VHS players were the rage, tapes were expensive (and took up room) and you watched a show as soon as you could so you could tape something else over it.
As a result, we writers did a lot of recapping. We felt we had to reorient people because a week (or two or six) had gone by since their last visit. We made sure each episode was pretty much self-contained since viewers tended to miss episodes along the way. (Those were the days when “life” came first.) And act breaks were really crucial because we always ran the risk that a sizable chunk of our audience was not willing to sit through commercial breaks.
And then there was the matter of tone. When I was on MASH, every season CBS would want to start with an hour episode. And those shows never really worked for me. MASH was clearly designed for the half hour format. We packed as much as we could into those half hours. The pace was always high speed and the dialogue was relentlessly jammed packed. Lots to digest.
We felt that expanding that to an hour would get exhausting for the viewer. That’s why I was particularly pleased when CBS decided to run the hour-long “Goodbye Radar” episode (that David Isaacs and I wrote) as a two-parter over two weeks.
And just in general, the pace of sitcoms has accelerated over the years. What seemed like fast-forward in the ‘70s is normal speed now.
And these are all questions I never thought I’d be asking at the time we were writing the episodes. Just as I’m sure the writers of MODERN FAMILY don’t know yet that in thirty years people will be watching their show from a chip implanted in their brain (that will also offer bonus features and a Spanish SAP option).
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM