Network Thinking In TV

The Sopranos is a story about a man that happens to be set in the world of organized crime. The Wire is a story about a setting, Baltimore, that happens to include a story about some people. They just so happen to be there so we learn a little about their lives, but the the real story is that of the city. This distinction is what makes The Sopranos one of the biggest shows of the last 20 years, and it makes The Wire a show with a small but vocal crowd who think it may be the best TV show ever made. Oddly, this comparison also illustrates why feed readers aren’t used by as many people as they could be.

These two shows are both critically acclaimed, but The Sopranos has objectively won more honors. I don’t think this was because The Sopranos was objectively better, though. I think it comes down to context, the network of stories in a long drawn out series and how they are connected in their respective worlds.

In The Sopranos, the stories are all closely connected through Tony. Everything could be understood through his perspective. On the other hand, the narrative of The Wire is solely connected through the city.

The way in which The Wire is written could create a problem for a casual viewer. First, you would need to understand the premise. If slow-paced stories set in a rundown city isn’t your cup of tea, it might require a lot of time before you start to see that each thread plays apart in a larger story about Baltimore.

The second problem is that a viewer needs to keep a running context of everything that has happened. The history of the show is sometimes the only way some stories mean anything.

The Sopranos is not a simple show, or any less deserving of its accolades, but it is easier to watch. I have read more than one blog post opining about why The Wire didn’t get a single Emmy. I think the simplest reason might be that it was just a difficult show to watch, and therefore fewer people watched it, but what made it difficult also made it so rich and pleasing to those who did watch it.

Now, here is the pivot. Comparing The Sopranos to The Wire could be like comparing a straightforward news diet of the daily paper, a few focused news sites, and possible one or two blogs, to that of a feed reader. For discussion purposes, let’s call the former a focused news diet, and the latter a diffuse news diet. The focused news diet is to The Sopranos as The Wire is to the diffuse news diet.

The focused news diet, like The Sopranos, has a strong central thread. Each website you visit there is a couple of editors who really put their stamp on things. They make sure that the site is dialed in basically the same way, day after day. If you read the same blogs everyday, even single-author blogs, you begin to understand how they tick. There isn’t much that surprises you or is orthogonal to the focused news diet. Also, like The Sopranos, the focused news diet is easy to consume. You don’t have to try very hard, and it becomes like a habit. Even if you wanted to consume more news, you couldn’t really, because the daily habit of opening all those webpages would become cumbersome if you tried to add in any more sites. Just like The Sopranos, you come away with a strong point of view from a few select sources.

Now compare that to the diffuse diet, the feed reading diet. The feed reading diet could easily include over 100 different news feeds that could be a mixture of professional, pro-am, and amateur alike. It could go further still and include feeds from aggregators that collect sources from all over the place. In this diet, there is no way any one editor will overpower another. You end up being your own editor. You must build a context for yourself. Like The Wire, this becomes the reward, understanding how stories relate to one another. Understand the underlying allegiances each site has to one another. By building that context yourself, each story means more and gets placed in a larger web of interest.

While The Sopranos will live on as a great show, it feels as if The Wire is beginning to ripen. The Wire will be a show that people discover slowly for a long time, and it’s possible more people will end up enjoying it long after it aired. David Simone said this himself recently at an interview in San Francisco: “I have a knack for making shows that people watch only after they have been on TV.”

Likewise, I think feed readers are an idea whose time is coming. We haven’t seen the best days of feed readers, and if we aren’t careful, we might not. But if there is a saving grace, it’s that people who use feed readers use them heavily and don’t want to lose them.