In this future, what publications will have done individually is adapt to survive; what they will have helped do together is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry. Which sounds extremely lucrative! TV makes a lot of money, and there’s a lot of excellent TV. But TV is also a byzantine nightmare of conflict and compromise and trash and waste and legacy. —John Herrman, “The Next Internet Is TV” (The Awl, 2015)
In the first episode of Follow This, the new docuseries from Netflix and Buzzfeed News, correspondent Scaachi Koul, wincing and grimacing and bringing her hands to her face, watches a woman licking her microphone. In journalist parlance, it’s an uncomfortably funny “lede” to Koul’s dispatch on ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), a genre of aurally stimulating YouTube videos that’s exploded in popularity in recent years. It’s also a glimpse of the reporter at work, peering behind the netting at the scaffolding of stories, which Follow This pursues with admirable, if imperfect, abandon. Alongside its sleek on-screen graphics, with ASMR viewership statistics and Koul’s recent bylines displayed in Buzzfeed News’ distinctive font, “The Internet Whisperers” features Koul’s labored phone calls to her editor, Karolina Waclawiak—an awkwardly emphatic attempt to depict the process of turning one’s reporting into cogent thoughts—and, perhaps most shrewd of all, Koul’s own understanding of her role. “I write stories about culture,” she explains, “and right now, culture is something that’s shaped by the Internet—a place that gives me mixed feelings.”
Those mixed feelings work in both directions. As John Herrman, now at the New York Times, suggests in “The Next Internet Is TV”—for my money, the most prescient piece of writing on the nature of platforms to be published since I started covering television—the medium’s “byzantine nightmare of conflict and compromise and trash and waste and legacy” is as likely to poison the promise of the Internet—if it hasn’t already—as it is to absorb the Internet’s freewheeling sensibilities. One might even argue that Follow This and its ilk—including Buzzfeed’s morning show AM to DM, in partnership with Twitter; Vox’s Explained, also on Netflix; and ABC News’ On Location, on Facebook Watch—are the culmination of Herrman’s prediction: publications doubling as “content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms.”
In the years since, it’s become clear that Herrman, writing from the perspective of the Internet, was broadly correct in comparing platforms to TV networks (distributing content in order to sell advertising) and publications to production companies (creating content in order to sell it to distributors). What’s still emerging, in fits and starts, is an understanding of the landscape from the other perspective: the process by which TV networks, from Netflix and ABC to HBO (with Vice), Univision (with Fusion), and soon FX (with “The Weekly,” a forthcoming series inspired by the Times’ popular podcast “The Daily”), hope to capture, repackage, and sell the nimbleness of the Internet. (Writing for REDEF in 2016, to wit, Matthew Ball and Tal Shachar outlined the future of video using a taxonomy of feeds.) It’s the convergence of these models that marks the route forward, especially as it pertains to news—a convergence, a consolidation, in which a handful of winners come out of an unprecedented proliferation and vacuum up the husks of their former competitors, or buy them out before they’re large enough to become competitors in the first place. Some of these winners will have been TV networks. Some will have been digital media companies. Some will even have been real, tangible newspapers and magazines at one point, or at least conglomerations thereof. But as in Follow This—a docuseries from a digital news organization, hosted on a major streaming platform, in which the first episode is a culture writer’s report on a subgenre of content on another streaming platform—these distinctions may soon cease to matter. If the next Internet is TV, then the reverse is true, too: The next TV is Internet.
“The way we watch TV now is so compartmentalized,” AM to DM’s Saeed Jones told me earlier this year, when I interviewed him, co-host Isaac Fitzgerald, and Shani O. Hilton, vice-president of news and programming for Buzzfeed News, as a follow-up to a column I’d done on the program. “How do you even define ‘TV’?”
It’s a sincere question, one to which even the pros can offer no simple answer: The success of Netflix’s Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, for instance, recently spurred an internal debate here at Paste about whether such titles fall under the umbrella of Movies or TV. How do you classify a feature-length rom-com that you can’t find in cinemas but can watch on your phone? How about a morning show that nods to decades-old formula, features Morgan Parker on poetry and Shangela on drag queens, and streams live each weekday on what used to be called a “microblogging” platform? A bleak YA drama about a handless girl on the social network your mother uses? An anthology series from an Oscar-winning director produced by the company that made my computer?
The rate of change in the mechanism of the medium, and thereby its economics, since Netflix debuted its first original series, House of Cards, in 2013, can fairly be described as explosive—the sort of thing that might’ve once made for a particularly far-fetched 30 Rock gag—and even with a contraction that brings the era of “peak TV” to a close already looming, where and when and how we watch TV continues to evolve faster than most observers can categorize it. The foremost examples are the long, slow demise of the cable TV bundle and streaming giants’ enormous outlays on original programming, but the ripple effect reaches the outer limits of the Internet, too: When both of the best comedies on HBO (High Maintenance and Insecure) began as web series, and the dominant video-hosting platform (which is owned by the dominant search engine) is now in the business of producing premium original content, and the ecosystem is lousy with overly optimistic digital companies angling to become the next [insert NASDAQ ticker symbol here] before its [insert insane amount of money here] IPO, then of course everyone on the Internet wants to make TV, or a podcast, or a podcast that becomes a TV show. As the notorious “Slick Willie” Sutton reportedly said when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”
To sample the recent spate of digital-first news programming, though, is to realize that “the next TV” may live on, and be shaped by, the Internet, but it’s still going to look a lot like, well, TV. In fact, the publisher that’s made the most successful “pivot to video” to date, in my view, is the one whose programming most closely resembles TV as we know it: Buzzfeed. Though there have been exceptions—such as The Try Guys, a forcefully unpleasant, vicariously embarrassing, and now-independent comedy series in which the main thing the guys appear to be trying to do is approximate the effect of actual charm—much of the outlet’s most appealing original content is an attempt to freshen up, rather than reinvent, familiar formulas. In addition to AM to DM and Follow This—in which each episode suggests a relatively sedate segment of Vice, which in turn cribbed its format from long-running “newsmagazines” like 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning—there’s Tasty, simultaneously condensing the conventions of the cooking show to shareable videos for the social web and selling kitchenware at Walmart as if it were Giada De Laurentiis. For all its interest in the process of reporting, and in subject matter that broadcast and cable news programs are unlikely to touch (ASMR, black survivalists, Whores Day), even Follow This falls back on certain tropes so common to pop culture’s understanding of journalism it at times approaches parody: “The Internet Whisperers” ends with an image of Koul at a dramatically lit conference table in one of Buzzfeed’s offices, typing away at her story. Then her voiceover—to this point chatty, casual, as if she were hanging with a friend—shifts, self-consciously, into the more formal register of the published piece, and the score froths with the twinkle of a rom-com’s last act. As Koul’s narration, her fingers, and the episode simultaneously reach the conclusion of the story, “The Internet Whisperers” comes to feel, if anything, a little too neat—more “TV” than “Internet.”
And yet Buzzfeed’s faintly disappointing failure to throw a change-up pitch may be a comparative advantage. Follow This is, for better and for worse, exactly as Hilton described the Buzzfeed News “ethos” to me earlier this year: “Out on the edge a little bit, in a responsible and deeply reported way.” The counterpoint here, perhaps, is Vox’s Explained, a series of video essays modeled on the site’s distinct “explainer” format, and an outgrowth of its wildly popular YouTube videos. The general-interest, ostensibly evergreen subject matter (astrology, cryptocurrency, K-pop, political correctness), covered in wide-ranging, 14- to 20-minute episodes, is an evolution for news programming, closer kin to Mythbusters or Unwrapped than to anything on, say, CNN, with which Vox plans to partner on a fashion-themed series called American Style. It’s also regrettably clumsy in execution: It may be true, as Fast Company reports, that “the idea of a TV show is always festering” at Vox (whatever that means), but Explained contains few indications that anyone at Vox (or Netflix) has thought terribly deeply about how the “explainer” plays as TV. Its episode about “The Female Orgasm,” for instance, narrated by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, is a garbled grand tour of its subject, flitting from topic to topic as if it were a distracted student’s class presentation. Brain chemistry, refractory periods, an interview with the host of the podcast How Cum?; cultural expectations, scientific statistics, the Kama Sutra, Ma Rainey; the clitoris, the G spot, masturbation, sociosexual scripts: No amount of nifty graphics, nor the episode’s one genuine coup—sublime, impressionistic animations of orgasms, as described by women in on-camera interviews—can stave off the feeling that it all adds up to a muddle, in which presenting information is mistaken for “explanation.” In effect, Explained is a reminder of the uses of storytelling conventions, the connective tissue, the highly telegraphed arcs, the logical transitions: On the Internet, Vox’s boldface sectional sub-headings might appear an innovation, but the fogginess of Explained suggests that they’re a crutch.
It’s ABC’s risible On Location, though—combining the worst features of Internet videos, broadcast news, and social media—that illustrates the point most acutely: Even if the next TV is Internet, there’s no guarantee that TV will come to reflect its possibilities and not its pitfalls. A brief (five- to six-minute) collection of even briefer “field reports” from its correspondents, On Location, being nightly news-adjacent, is already on thin ice; there is nothing particularly instructive about a reporter’s fuzzy smart phone footage of a home’s burned-out husk in Idyllwild, Calif., the chimney, ironing board and bathtub marked, more than a little awkwardly given the context, with bright blue graphics and sunny sound effects. Add to that the fact that a significant number of the dispatches are not “on location” at all, and it’s hard not to the laugh at the sheer gormlessness of it: “Let me just show you what we’re talking about here,” foreign correspondent James Longman says, breathlessly, of an earthquake in Indonesia in the series’ first episode. “I have a map on the wall of my office.”
The operative question, then, is not whether the next TV is Internet—that future is upon us—but whether it will fulfill the same “grand weird promises” of decentralization that Herrman held up as the “glory” of the web and the very antithesis of television. With the benefit of three tumultuous years’ hindsight, I’m not sure I wholly agree with his premise: The fragmentation of (and flux in) the TV business has already created space for near-unprecedented experimentation in the most mediated of art forms, and the day-to-day experience of “the Internet” has become so dominated by a handful of giant corporations that Silicon Valley often resembles Hollywood in the heyday of the studios. But Herrman was right, if the pioneering news programs of the digital sphere are any indication, that many of the promises would be broken: TV news on the Internet will look like TV news on premium and basic cable, which looks like TV news on the broadcast networks, which has been withering on the vine since the retirement of Walter Cronkite. Even on the entertainment front, where it might appear that the convergence of TV and the Internet has led to a more thorough transformation, much of this is mere laziness—e.g., Netflix’s episode-bloat problem—and the rest can be misleading: Sure, I might stream two of the most subversively funny dark comedies of the decade by visiting an online shopping behemoth that would boil its workers for tallow if it meant turning a bigger profit, but ultimately Catastrophe and Fleabag exist thanks to the venerable BBC.
The “convergence” here might, more precisely, be called a “collision,” in that the needs of the (current) Internet—to fill its infinitude—militate against the nature of (traditional) TV—an art form of limitations, from censors and ad breaks to episode lengths and season orders. The lifting of these limitations is often seen as a boon, but approaching two years as Paste TV editor, and two on the TV beat as a freelancer before that, I’ve seen scarce evidence to support the assertion. The endorsement of Emmy voters aside, none of the major streaming services has made a drama on par with those of “the golden age of television.” The most unfettered (and lavishly expensive) series on linear TV contains no more aesthetic interest than The Days of Our Lives. Three of the most influential news organizations in the United States combined forces with four of the largest media platforms and collectively produced an enjoyably scruffy morning show; a solid but unremarkable newsmagazine; a series of informative but frustratingly messy video essays; and an out-and-out embarrassment. As the first comment I encountered on On Location read, “Please bring back The View!!!”
I jest, of course. Well, sort of. The problem I’ve attempted to identify here, following Herrman’s argument that the Internet has assumed the worst traits of TV, is that TV, in turn, risks assuming the worst traits of the Internet, resulting in a hybrid medium of the future that loses what we’ve come to love about both. When TV chases the idioms of the Internet—or, even worse, seems like it’s been created simply to fill it—it’s decoupled from the boundaries that give its stories structure; when the Internet shoehorns its stories into the conventions of TV, they often feel pre-digested, formulaic, a half-measure too clean. Even beyond the niggling sense that much of this programming exists primarily, if not solely, because video is more lucrative than text, beyond the potential drawbacks of news outlets becoming content creators for the platforms they’re covering as political actors, business ventures, and entertainment options, at the root of all this is my concern, as both a user of the Internet and a fan of TV, that we’ve bought into the idea that we’re witnessing a revolution, when in fact what we’re seeing is more of the same. That gives me mixed feelings.
What about you?
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.