10 March 2011

Page Numbers on Television

Via Tyler Cowen:
Cheap Talk | Jeff | Page Numbers Are For Wussies

I don’t have a Kindle but I noticed that people were complaining so much about the absence of page numbers on early versions that Amazon has restored page numbers in the latest Kindle software. This adherence to tradition (in which I include prudish Professors and Editors who demand precise page references in Bibliographies) destroys a unique advantage of eBooks that could make them more than just a fragile, signal-jamming replacement for old fashioned pulp.

Suspense requires randomization. If you are reading my paper-bound novel and I want to maximize your suspense I am constrained by your ability to infer, based on how many pages are left, the likelihood that the story is going to play out as staged or whether there will be another twist in the plot. It is impossible for me to convince you of a “false ending” if you are on page 200 out of 400. The bastard publisher has spoiled it for me because 1) he has, without my permission, smeared page numbers all over my handiwork, and 2) refused to add bulk by randomly insert blank pages at the end to help me fool you.

Now Kindle, and eBook readers in general allow me to shuck that constraint. I can end the novel at any point and you would never know that the end is right around the corner. I could make it 1 page long. Imagine the effect of that! I could make it grind to a halt on page 200 only to surprise you with a development completely out of the blue that takes another 200 pages to resolve.
I made the same argument some ways back about video entertainment moving online. I am looking forward to the day when TV shows are freed from the half-hour and one-hour blocks they get on broadcast. It is too limiting.

If I sit down to watch an hour-long cop drama at 9:00, and by 9:25 they have some suspicious guy in custody and all signs point to him being the bad guy, I know he isn't the bad guy. At least not the only one. Or there is some other wrinkle going on.They still have 35 precious minutes to fill up. No way is this the real ending of the story.

But if TV moves to an on-line, on-demand medium episodes can be however long you want them to be. You don't have to fill up exactly 42 minutes (an hour less commercials) with content. Somedays you could tell 35 minutes or story, and some days it could be 67. Do whatever you want. And I won't know what's coming.


  1. As a kindle owner, the anti-page-number guy can kiss my... whatever.

    First of all, maintaining suspense is a specious objection, as the bottom of the screen displays a percentage of the book read without need for any page number.

    Secondly, knowing how far I am from the end of the book is valuable information as a reader - if it's 10:30 PM and I want to finish my book (a common occurrence for me), I'd like to know if I have an hour left to go or four hours. If that ruins his creative freedom, I feel no pity for him.

    I actually think that your argument in favor of variable-length TV brings it into a format much more comparable to printed paper style publishing than you seem to believe. I've seen novels of 125 pages and novels of 1200 pages, so their length is variable, but always measured in pages, the number of which is known. Your arbitrary-length TV programs are all measured in minutes, the number of which is known. At any point in their respective stories, you can know how much is left (and thus can ruin the suspense like you're referring to).

    What's the difference?

  2. Good point. Maybe it's not so much suspense I'm looking for in a TV show as it is the freedom for writers to create different sorts of stories for episodes. Every Law & Order episode has to be of comparable complexity, because they all have to be told in roughly the same amount of time. Every episode of Parks & Recreation has to have roughly the same number of jokes, because they have the same number of minutes to fill.

    I'd like a situation in which a solid 18 minutes of show didn't need to be padded up to 24 minutes, and a good 34 minutes didn't need to be cut down to 24.

    I believe you're a habitual podcast listener like I am. I really appreciate that they are (typically) not bound to a certain length, and I'd like to see that flexibility in TV as well.

  3. I certainly agree on those points - allowing variable length could really help free the writers from the formulas they overuse, and probably allow them to tell more interesting stories once freed from that constraint. (And I have to add that Law & Order is a terrible show on every conceivable level.)

    You're also right about me being a podcast junkie. I love the era of free downloadable audio entertainment. I've particularly noticed that the relative lack of time constraint drastically improves interview-based shows, because the participants have time to chase down fascinating tangents and explain complexities that would blow a time-constraint out of the metaphorical water.