How TV Beat Film To The Water Cooler

The Arts


For decades television was the poor cousin to film, but how times have changed. When was the last time you heard anyone discussing a movie at the office coffee station? How did cinema get sidelined in favour of television shows?

For the answer to that, you have to go back to the birth of cable TV. In the 1970s the US networks were being strangled by the very advertisers who kept them alive, not only by the frequency of ad breaks but because advertisers wanted to dictate content. At the end of that decade cable began to emerge as a real winner as subscription channels really took off in the US and were no longer subject to censorship.

HBO is a Time-Warner company and had been around since 1972, but it found a new market in adult fiction series that made use of relaxed advertiser-free attitudes and were able to treat adult themes. Shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under set the tone for others to follow, although they were often filmed with alternate scenes for export to more censorious countries. Subsequently their quality declined into more sex and violence-based soap operas like True Blood and Game of Thrones.

By then, though, others had realised there was international popularity to be had by commissioning intelligently written shows, partly because they have extended longevity via box sets, streaming formats and reruns. AMC (a cable channel) created Vince Gilligan’s ‘Breaking Bad’, which became the highest-rated cable show of all time. Even flawed series like ‘Lost’ and ‘Fargo’ have become water cooler shows. Why?

Partly their length allows for greater plot development in the same way that Dickens created legions of fans for his serialised books, but also TV found it no longer had to hand-hold its viewers, who had by this time become far more TV-literate. With streaming and DVD there was no more need for recaps and characters rehashing every previous incident, leaving story development with a clear flight path. Relaxed censorship and cheaper film-like techniques have blurred the lines further – plus the collapse of the star system for films means that TV can feature unfamiliar faces.

But it’s a lesson the BBC has yet to learn. While cable companies and overseas crime dramas have come to trust the long-tell story, Auntie is still mired in simpler family-friendly material because of its remit to provide entertainment for all sectors of the population. There’s talk of more fiction being commissioned, but the BBC has a tendency to stick with winners and not bother exploring or experimenting – for example, why should Mark Gatiss be the only stopping point for horror and ghost stories?

Meanwhile Hollywood film studios, faced with a lack of clear trends that resulted in a downturn in US admissions, turned to providing content for China, India and emerging world markets, which has meant taking a huge step back in terms of sophistication in order to pass censors, so that now there are really just two types of product; family action and comedy films for international release and films for local consumption which are not expected to perform elsewhere (Christian films, ones featuring local TV stars).

However, the latter films are still expected to perform overseas (the poster for ‘God’s Not Dead’ has more than a touch of desperation about it, being decorated with negative reviews). Meanwhile, the TV series has become international, and an equivalent entity to a very long complex film – hence its dominance in pub conversations.