With the rise of very high budget television shows like The Pacific (The pacific 2010) and Game of Thrones (Game of thrones 2011), there has been a direct increase in quality of media enjoyable from home. As we see with the steady decline in box office sales, what allowed film to stand out in the past, scale, spectacle and quality is now slowly becoming irrelevant as television becomes bigger and better at a much quicker pace. This is emphasised by the way the internet has adopted TV series streaming, and popular culture. Has televisions social attributes helped it excell past it’s cinematic cousin? This is what I aim to investigate in this essay.
The birth of television series
From the coining of the word ‘television’ by Russian, Constantin Perskyi (Bellis. sa.) in 1900 during the Paris World Fair, people started paying more attention to the idea of an electronic device that displays distant images, something actively conceptualised since 1862.
But it wasn’t till 1930 that weekly broadcasts started, first from the BBC, and then from American broadcaster CBS. After the production freeze during the second world war there was a great boom in sales, and by 1952 there we’re 1,4 million sets in Britain alone (History of television 2014).
Now even though television was rising in popularity, it was still seen as a crude viewing method, and understandably so. At the time, companies like Technicolor and Panavision pushed for 70mm films, and sensations like the massive Cinerama (Cinerama 2014), with it’s dome like buildings and overlapping projectors was the talk of the town.
TV programming at the time could be very closely compared to radio programming with pictures. News, advertisements and other obvious nick-nacks is what filled the time slots. But it is radio drama that inspired the first narrative to be broadcasted, a stage recording of the revue Looking In was broadcast in 1932, and after many other plays and Opera’s, leading to the first broadcast of Telecrime in 1938, (Telecrime 2013), one of televisions first multi-episode drama’s specifically written for TV and not adapted from radio or theater.
This was the start of a new era in communication technology, and at the time, no one expected that the format of the multi-episode TV series would become the dominant form of TV programming for years to come.
This however, was only the birth of a giant industry that now threatens the very relevance of cinema in the modern age.
As the film critic James Wolcott (2012) explaines, the “action” in a sense, has left the cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable. With massively popular shows, rivaling the view count of blockbusters by the week, it’s no surprise that pop-culture revolves around television shows and series longer, and more sustainably than with film.
It can be argued that TV series directs the flow of popular culture much more visibly than the big screen allows for. Constant exposure to, and public discourse on the run of TV series make it hard to ignore a popular show, coaxing viewers to watch, and so immediately boosting the network ratings once the story has gripped the viewer.
Walcott (2012) stated candidly in a recent article:
After I fell out of love with movies (new movies, that is—classic Hollywood I still adulate), I realized during my rare visits to the multiplex that what I missed wasn’t the big screen, that Mount Rushmore larger-than-lifeness, but the short vacation in the receptive dark, the comfort and calm of the blinds being lowered on the city outside.
Now even though Walcott makes some good points in his article, the true case may be more complex than a easy “Movies < TV” mathematical formula. Yet from what I see, television is is growing faster than ever. And from what I see, television dominates cultural conversation. And from what I see, television takes the best practical advantage of social media, if only because when you make use of the wonders of social media in the theater, you get bad mouthed by the old Lady in the seat behind you.
Yet while I don’t think good television is disappearing any time soon, it’s not clear that this trend can maintain itself in the sea of ideal circumstance that has elevated it to where it stands. As with anything revolving around money, can good television be forced back to the absolute mainstream as large broadcasters push for a certain standard of programming? Famous creators of shows like David Simon, one of the idols and leaders in modern, good television, spoke out against (Egner 2012) the movement towards online TV distribution, and recapping. Will this coax websites into rethinking their distribution methods? Simon’s comments were rather trivial and grumpy at times, yet they also pointed to the possibility that there are a lot of people writing about TV specifically because it’s hip at the moment, but if more leaders like Simon speak out, it may soon not be that cool anymore.
Wolcott (2012) suggests the Internet helped accelerate television’s rise; we all watch the same episode of Mad Men at the same time, and everyone who want’s participates in the after-show talk on Twitter. Cool experimental films tour the world slowly, limiting their viewership and opportunities for bigger conversations. But the way film resists instant gratification speaks to something that still makes cinephilia a special thing in this new age of telemania: it’s harder to be a film lover than a TV lover. Think about the amount of effort required to see an obscure art-house spectacle like Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), following it from Sundance to acquisition to distribution to its opening at your local Cinema Nouveau. And then think about the ease of setting your DVR box to record an episode of Dracula (2013) after someone recommends the show to you.
In this age of streaming video, movies on demand, and instantaneous choice, there’s something pure, and maybe even a little beautiful, about having to work at a pop culture obsession. Maybe television is better than film, maybe TV is the new cinema. Maybe TV will become the dominant mainstream medium. And maybe that is the best thing that could ever happen to film. If TV takes over the mainstream, then film can expand into the margins, the only difference is, in this case, the stadium isn’t empty. It’s just a little bit smaller than it used to be.
Bellis, M. sa. The invention of television. http://inventors.about.com/od/tstartinventions/a/Television_Time.htm/ (Accessed 24 April 2014).
Cinerama. 2014. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinerama/ (Accessed 4 May 2014).
Dracula. 2013. IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2296682/?ref_=nv_sr_1/ (Accessed 3 May 2014).
Egner, J. 2012. The Game Never Ends: David Simon on Wearying ‘Wire’ Love and the Surprising Usefulness of Twitter. http:/artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/the-game-never-ends-david-simon-on-wearying-wire-love-and-the-surprising-usefulness-of-twitter/ (Accessed 4 May 2014).
Game of thrones. 2011. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_Thrones#Production/ (Accessed 3 May 2014).
History of television. 2014. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_television/ (Accessed 5 May 2014).
Martha marcy may marlene. 2011. IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1441326/?ref_=nv_sr_1/ (Accessed 4 May 2014).
Telecrime. 2013. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecrime/ (Accessed 5 May 2014).
The Pacific. 2010. IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0374463/business?ref_=tt_dt_bus/ (Accessed 3 May 2014).
Wolcott, J. 2012. Prime time’s graduation. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2012/05/wolcott-television-better-than-movies/ (Accessed 24 April 2014).