Has TV outdone Cinema?

Television today looks very different to what it looked like twenty years ago, and it’s not just because our screens are now flatter.

Before “The Sopranos” changed the game, dramatic television was much simpler; individual episodes were often self-contained stories that didn’t necessarily need to be watched in a particular order. Hence why police, courtroom and hospital dramas were so common; principal characters could resolve a story within forty-four minutes and then move on to another story the next week. Shows like “Westworld”, known for providing viewers with a cognitive workout, would not have survived in the 1990s because viewers turned on their TV sets to relax.

However, technological advances in video recording and DVDs changed the way people watched TV. Audiences could be much more selective about what they wanted to watch, forcing networks to raise the bar. The rising popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime today is evidence for the continuous rise of selectivity among viewers.

HBO took a risk with “The Sopranos” after several other networks passed on producing it. This opened the door to very popular and critically acclaimed TV shows such as “The West Wing”, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”. FX’s research team estimated that between 2009 and 2015 there has been a 94% increase in the number of scripted TV shows aired on broadcast television, cable and via streaming services. This shows that television is becoming a more popular way for people to tell stories.

Streaming services also have the luxury of not being limited in their structure or runtime, allowing writers to work outside the ad-break framework, resulting in much more fluid storytelling.

The noticeable increase in televisions shows’ budgets can be seen as a measure of networks’ increasing faith in what they are producing. Between $1.5million and $4.5million is typically spent to produce an episode of a drama series, but costs are known to soar. HBO reportedly spent $25million producing the premiere episode of “Westworld”, and Netflix spent $100million to produce “The Crown”.

What identifies television’s increase in prestige most tellingly is the change in the way actors view television in comparison to cinema. No longer is television thought of as the place where film stars’ careers went to die. Bryan Cranston won four Primetime Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Walter White, and yet since the conclusion of “Breaking Bad” he has rarely played the lead in a film. Moreover, Aaron Paul, Cranston’s co-star, and Jon Hamm, star of “Mad Men”, are unlikely to work on anything else that will supplant their aforementioned magnum opera. Television can finally deliver that level of esteem.

Incredible acting performances add to the growing appeal of television and attract further talent and ambition is a virtuous cycle, especially in regard to representation. Examples of actors who have made this move include Jessica Lange on “American Horror Story” and Viola Davis on “How To Get Away With Murder”.

The trend doesn’t stop with actors. Well-known directors are also opening up to exploring television projects. Among them are David Fincher (“The Social Network”), the Coen Brothers (“The Big Lebowski”) and David Lynch (“Twin Peaks”), all with very recent or upcoming shows. Just this year David Lynch suggested that he may never make another feature film again.

Television is an increasingly attractive medium for those wishing to tell a story on the screen. Writers and directors can be more ambitious because the financial resources and talented actors are available to fulfil the vision. The Golden Age of television is set to continue, for which I am grateful (but my grades certainly aren’t).

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