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25 July 2013

The day when TV schedules match up across the globe is near at hand

Traditional television, with its schedules and seasons, will soon be a thing of the past.

By Bim Adewunmi

There was a moment in Dates on Channel 4 when Ellie (Montanna Thompson) asked her much older date David (Will Mellor) about his other dates from the internet. “What was her name?” she asked. David, eyes growing a little troubled, reluctantly replied: “Mia.” Not put off by his expression, irrepressible Ellie shot back: “How was it?” David paused, collecting his thoughts and perhaps trying to decide how much to give away about another woman, on another date.

The audience already knew what Mia was like, because they had seen the date between Mia and David play out with their own eyes, only a few nights ago, in the same timeslot (she said his jeans and tie combo made him “look like a Belgian”; he asked if she was always this horrible).

Dates ran for nine half-hour episodes over three weeks last month, each at 10pm. Characters from previous episodes were alluded to casually and without fuss, with none of the fretting that usually occurs in multi-narrative shows. We remembered who was being mentioned, we got all the references, wove together a fuller picture of each character with each new outing. And the fact these were broadcast on consecutive nights only helped to tie the stories even more tightly together.

Storytelling becomes much more urgent, much more joined up and coherent when there is just enough time to process what has been seen and prepare ourselves for the next installment.

Years ago, when The Wire was still a gleam in most TV critics’ eyes, I watched the first season of the show with my housemates. Every evening, after dinner, we settled into a lovely routine of doing the dishes and catching up with Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale.

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Some nights, when the tension got too much, we’d share a quick, silent glance before returning to the main menu and selecting a third episode. The week – structured and constant – is good for many things but it’s not always been conducive to consuming gripping, well-paced storytelling. Why wait a full week, in which the momentum, carefully calibrated across an episode, diminishes at an alarming rate, when you can switch on again in 24 hours and pick up where you left off?

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Channel 4 clearly sees the wisdom in this device, because it is trotting it out again this week with its new series, Run, starring Olivia Colman, Lennie James and Neil Maskell (who had a brief and unforgettable turn in Dates), showing over four consecutive nights (15-19 July; now available to watch on 4oD) in the same 10pm slot.

The storyline is one of multiple narratives: four people, Kasia (Katharina Schuttler), Ying (Katie Leung), Richard (James) and Carol (Colman). The trailer is, as expected, a cliché – frenetic and busy and bright with moody undertones – but the interesting thing is the format, which is more than ever in tune with the way modern audiences take in their television.

The rise of the box set has changed the way we watch our screens. The Netflix model (putting all the episodes out there, so audiences can binge or stringently ration, as they see fit) may well be the future of scripted entertainment.

Traditional television, with its schedules and seasons may not be able to do this (yet – although there must be boffins working on this), but programmes set out like Run and Dates help to mimic that feeling of connected consecutive-night viewing that comes naturally to modern audiences.

I’ve written about the eventual death of spoilers in a previous column, the point in time when US and UK (and all the other major markets) TV schedules will match up and viewers will be have the choice of watching what they want, when they want, as soon as it becomes available.

Fans of television, starved of the many series they know are out there, are closing the gap – via VPN (virtual private network) apps such as TunnelBear, for example – and television is slowly beginning to resemble the world that viewers have created. Run, and subsequent series like it, is just another step in that happy direction.