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The Critical Debate Over Film Versus Television Rages On

by Matt Singer
April 6, 2012 9:10 AM
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Fox Searchlight "Margaret"

My college major was something called "Television, Radio, Film."  I vividly remember the first time I told one of my relatives I was taking a class on the history of television.  He chuckled and groaned "Really?" as if I'd just announced I was taking a class on the history of hopscotch or bubble gum -- something frivolous and childish and altogether unimportant.  Why would anyone study television?  The conversation moved on and a few minutes later it circled around to interesting developments in the world of popular culture.  "Hey, by the way," he asked "have you heard about this new gangster show on HBO?  I think it's called 'The Sopranos?'"

Thanks to those Sopranos and the earth-shattering changes they brought to their medium, studying television doesn't seem like such a dumb idea anymore.  In fact, the whole media hierarchy of my old college degree has been reversed.  When I was in school, studying film was cool; studying television was a chore.  Electives in single camera film production and screenwriting were in high demand; electives in multicamera production were avoided by all but the most serious TV careerists.  The general feeling amongst my college peers, at least as I perceived it, was that film was the dream job and television was the backup plan in case the dream job never came to fruition.  I don't hang around college campuses much these days, not since that damn restraining order anyway, but I have to imagine the next generation of media makers are as or more interested in making and studying television as they are in movies.  Why wouldn't they be? As improbable as it seemed less than fifteen years ago, TV is just plain sexier than movies.

For proof of this drastic shift in perceptions, one need only look to wave upon wave of recent articles hailing the rise of television and the decline of film.  The latest was sparked by James Wolcott's recent piece in the pages of Vanity Fair, which is technically titled "Prime Time's Graduation," but which is referred to in VF's Most Popular widget as "Television Has Officially Surpassed the Movies."  Wolcott's "official" judgement has a few underlying arguments, including the damning (and accurate) one that the whole experience of going to the movies has become hopelessly debased by rude, cell phone obsessed audience members.  But the content of movies, Wolcott says, has degenerated just as rapidly as the environment around them:

"Like 'Twin Peaks,' '24,' 'Mad Men,' and 'The Sopranos' before it, 'Downton Abbey' enriches the iconography and collective lore of pop culture. It replenishes the stream. (It also provides the perfect layup for PBS’s next prestige import, starting in April: the BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s best-selling novel 'Birdsong,' which will once again elegantly chuck us into the W.W. I trenches.) By contrast: for those of us who have fallen out of romance with movies, its franchise blockbusters seem to be leeching off the legacy of pop culture and cinema history, squandering the inheritance with endless superhero sequels and video-game emulations that digitize action stars into avatars and motion-capture figures, a mutant species with an emotive range running strictly in shades of bold. And those films that aren’t aiming for an opening-weekend monster kill seem to dwell solely within a realm of discourse dominated by film bloggers and Twitter twitchers, these configurations of loyalists and lost-causers adopting a film that they fell for at some festival and cradling it like a football as they chug downfield in a deserted stadium. 'Margaret,' 'Bellflower,' 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' 'The Future,' 'Shame,' 'Take Shelter—these are quality titles (so I assume, I haven’t seen most of them, I shall Netflix them in the fullness of time) that become objects of obsession for a few but float in limbo for those not on screening or “screener” lists... Arty entries may accrue a cult status over time that collects more disciples into the fold, but they lose the catalytic moment to set the culture humming."

This is an interesting point: television circa 2012 adds to the culture while movies circa 2012 simply suck culture dry like media vampires.  And, of course, television's biggest indisputable advantage over movies -- length, and thus the potential for depth and intricacy -- comes into play here as well.  Television introduces us to amazing characters -- Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Coach Eric Taylor -- then explores their lives and minds for dozens of hours.  The longer their shows go, the richer their characters become.  Movies, on the other hand, introduce us to characters for 90 minutes, and after that they're gone forever.  On the off chance they're popular enough to warrant a sequel, their quirks and charms are often smoothed over and made more accessible, because sequels are driven by the search for financial gain, not probing emotional insights.  Where television shows like "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" welcome the complexity that comes with age, movie franchises tend to favor accessibility, and they often reboot bankable properties after just two or three installments.  When we meet Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man" this summer, it will not be the Peter Parker we'd come to know in three previous movies by Sam Raimi.  This Peter will be a blank slate, the better to attract an easily distracted young audience. 

With all of those concessions to Wolcott's good points, though, things may yet prove more complicated than a simple "TV > Movies" mathematical formula.  For one thing, even as he denigrates the state of modern cinema, he concedes that he hasn't seen recent films like "Margaret," "Bellflower," and "Take Shelter," remarkable works that possess many of the same pleasures -- depth of character, acting, and narrative -- that Wolcott finds in good television.  If I wrote a response to Wolcott's piece entitled "Why Film Is Still Better Than Television" and I sang the praises of "Take Shelter" and "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Undefeated" and listed eight different reasons why movies are still a better medium for visual and non-fiction storytelling, but I noted that I was making that argument without having watched "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones" and "Justified," would you take my opinion seriously?  Probably not.

In my mind, there's no question that television is on the rise.  In my mind, there's no question that television owns the cultural conversation.  In my mind, there's no question that television is better suited to take advantage of the pleasures of social media, if only because when you take advantage of the pleasures of social media in a movie theater you get scolded by James Wolcott and Matt Singer (and then Matt Singer talks about himself in the third person).  But while I don't think quality television is going anywhere, I do wonder whether this trend is a sustainable sea change or a fad buoyed by a fortuitous confluence of events.  As good television shows and the networks that produce and air them grow more powerful and more profitable, will the demands of big business force the medium back towards the mainstream?  As TV creators like David Simon -- one of the patron saints of this new era of good television -- come out publicly against the world of online TV consumption, dissection, and recapping, will websites rethink their coverage strategies? Simon's comments were needlessly petty and grumpy, but they also hinted at the possibility that many people are writing about television right now specifically because it is cool -- and if more producers like Simon denounce their work, it may not seem quite so cool for very long.

Wolcott credits the Internet with helping fuel television's rise; everyone watches the same episode of "Mad Men" at the same time on Sunday, and everyone can participate in the same post-show conversation on Twitter.  Cool arthouse movies like "Martha Marcy May Marlene" tour the country incrementally, limiting their audience and their possibilities for large-scale conversations.  But the way in which movies resist instant gratification speaks to one of the things that still makes cinephilia special in the age of telemania: it's harder to be a movie lover than a TV lover.  Compare the amount of legwork required to see an underground arthouse hit like "Martha Marcy May Marlene" -- following it from Sundance to acquisition to distribution to its opening at your local art house -- with setting your DVR box to record an episode of "Luck" 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, where it's not such a bad thing to be treasured like a football carried downfield by an unstoppable running back.  The only difference is, in this case, the stadium isn't empty.  It's just a little bit smaller than it used to be.

Read more of James Wolcott's "Prime Time's Graduation."

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More: Film Versus Television, James Wolcott


  • Vite | April 9, 2012 9:21 PMReply

    As others have said, there are certain inherent advantages one medium has over the other. Television has longevity. Shows have much time to explore a variety of characters, themes and plot lines. A single film simply cannot match the depth of shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire. At the same time, longevity can be a disadvantage if the writers do not have a vision of where the show should go or if the sole purpose of keeping the show around is for financial reasons. Two recent examples of this are Lost and Dexter. On the other hand, film is more free to be avant-garde. Could you imagine how quickly a show would be cancelled if it attempted to be experimental?

  • William | April 11, 2012 10:12 PM

    Vite: I agree that cinema has much more range. As good as television has gotten in the last 20 years, it is still locked into fairly standard narrative realism -- with the exception perhaps of "Twin Peaks," but that was ages ago. Television couldn't deliver the kind of artistic high I got in 2011 from "Uncle Boonmee," "Drive," "Incendies," "Meek's Cutoff," or "The Future."

  • William | April 11, 2012 10:11 PM

    Vite: I agree that cinema has much more range. As good as television has gotten in the last 20 years, it is still locked into fairly standard narrative realism -- with the exception perhaps of "Twin Peaks," but that was ages ago. Television couldn't deliver the kind of artistic high I got in 2011 from "Uncle Boonmee," "Drive," "Incendies," "Meek's Cutoff," or "The Future."

  • kendyl | April 9, 2012 8:57 PMReply

    the argument as to whether television or film is better is futile; it is a preference thing. As a previous poster said, its not like comparing apples to apples. But however, it is like comparing peaches to nectarines; they are very similar. There are amazing, original, artistic movies out there as well as remakes, sequels, and adaptions. Then there are amazing, original, artistic TV shows out there as well as typical cop dramas, soap operas, and silly sitcoms. It is up to the viewer to decide which he/she enjoys more from the only truly distinguishing factor: character and story flow. Are you content with seeing an interesting, relatable character and his journey for only 100 minutes, or are you hungry for hours more?

  • Baron | April 9, 2012 6:53 PMReply

    You're comparing some of the best few shows of the last decade to some random summer blockbuster movies. Doesn't seem really fair to me. There are plenty of crap TV-shows made only for profits as well.

  • Ray | April 9, 2012 3:21 PMReply

    My problem with movies is there has not been an original story movie that was a hit in many years. They are all sequels or adaptations. TV is giving us original stories every week.

  • William Dunmyer | April 9, 2012 7:37 PM

    Cinema also gives us original stories week after week. Audiences ignore the movies that have original stories. The big question is why guys like you, who appreciate original stories, don't go to movies that have original stories.

  • Matthew | April 9, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    The one big problem I have with the original argument is they are not comparing apples to apples, although the author does a better job of it.

    Yeah lots of big budget Hollywood movies seem soulless. Want to compare them to their to their ilk in TV. It is no way no how Mad Men or shows like that. It is NCIS, Big Bang Theory, and the plethora of music audition shows. Mad Men is an art-house flick of TV. Yeah, people talk about it, they sure don't watch it in droves. The season premier got beaten by five different reruns of NCIS.

    I do agree there is some awesome TV on right now. I think a huge advantage is that their is a wide variety of quality options right now. I think the smaller market section of TV is hitting its stride, where channels are finding their niche beside the kings of this area, which are HBO and AMC recently. However, big market TV runs into the same problem that big Hollywood does; you have to sell out to be the big guy.

  • Li | April 9, 2012 12:52 PMReply

    It just seems like comparing apples and oranges. Television is a serialized narrative, film must tell a single story in 90-120 minutes. We often judge TV series on how successful they are at sustaining a long-form story, maintaining suspense and cliffhangers, season-long arcs and long-term character development. At the same time, we fault shows when their quality seems to slip over time (look at the debate over the final series of 'The Sopranos"), and it would be regarded as incredibly foolish to judge the quality of a show based on one episode--even worse, to judge it based on the pilot.

    A film must be smaller in scope, due to the constraints of the time limit, but as a consequence is afforded the opportunity for rich detailing, more elaborate and experimental storytelling and camera techniques, and the ability to tell a more focused story with a finite ending and no need to "hook" a larger story which can be sustained for seasons.

    It just seems absurd to compare the two just because they're both filmed fiction.

  • Huffy | April 9, 2012 10:51 AMReply

    People who say that TV is now superior to film either watch top 10 Hollywood productions exclusively or are insane. I'm sorry if this offends anyone but film will always be a richer medium and it doesn't take much thought to figure out why: an auteur will always be able to scrounge up some cash to make a film which has an extremely limited commercial appeal. TV producers simply can't do that and need ratings to survive, which limits what they can an can't create shows about. Sure you've got stuff like The Wire, which HBO continued to fund despite some soft ratings, but that's what, one show in how many years? There are many more films produced every year than there are TV shows and a much more diverse selection of genres and styles compared to the small screen. That's not to say that TV can't equal film, as works like The Decalogue and Berlin Alexanderplatz have show it can and then some, but as a medium film is much more conductive to artists with unique visions than TV is.

  • Michael | April 9, 2012 1:32 PM


    I get what your saying and while I agree in part that some guy can scrounge up just enough cash to film his tight-budgeted film which may just be amazing in it's final product, I feel like t.v. has created just as many if not more game-changing shows than film as of late.

    I can think of some exceptional shows that have tackled subjects and plots that wouldn't have even been considered at one time. Here is a short list of just a few:

    1. Twin Peaks - the first to show what a different kind of was capable of.
    2. The Sopranos - The biggest influence on the medium possibly of all-time
    3. The Wire - Dark, exceptionally gritty and heartbreaking. A rare gem.
    4. Lost - The heir-apparent to Twin Peaks. It was THE SHOW to talk about the next day with friends and created the modern day template for shows looking to both capture the zeitgeist and the critical acclaim all in one.
    5. Arrested Development - The highly intelligent and self-referential humor now infused into you see in shows like Modern Family come from this show. It was never a ratings winner, but those who saw it have almost always become a lifelong fan.
    6. Dexter - Tackling the moral issue of rooting for a serial killer who kills other murderers, at it's best this show was both darkly funny as well as consistently excellent.
    7. Breaking Bad - Moral grey area never felt so uncomfortable as this show. Each season has been a wonderful treat.
    8. Mad Men - Draper is a pop culture icon for a reason, but this show is so much more than him. It's a wonderful look back at a different time in our history that many of us never lived through.
    9. Friday Night Lights - Multiple cameras, no blocking, improvised dialogue in many scenes, large ensemble cast, some of the best acting ever on a show. Yeah, five seasons of pure gold.
    10. Battlestar Galactica - Turned what was a supremely cheesy early 80's show into a highly complex tale filled with moral, political and social examinations on a great variety of topics.

    Honorable Mention: Game of Thrones, Justified, Son of Anarchy, The Shield, etc.

    The thing with all of these shows is that they were and are great. And more than that, they have influenced shows that have come after. There are many more shows I could list, but it would make this response even longer.

    Film is great, but how many movies are released every year? Hundreds at least and the ratio of great films coming out of that total is not particularly good. Television is better at it and their great shows tend to be exceptional.

    Television is simply becoming a better product overall. Here is reason. Until recently it would have been nearly impossible to lure recognizable and acclaimed actors to appear on a t.v. show, but these days they seem to be everywhere. Actors are now going to where the best stories are being told.

  • David Thomson | April 8, 2012 10:02 AMReply

    I'm a TRF grad myself a former professor of mine, Bob Thompson has been banging this drum for a long time, it's nice to see some traction!

    But even back in the 80s shows like Moonlighting and St. Elsewhere were better than some if the excesses of 80s mainstream American cinema. TV and film have always been particularly separated in America only really for economic reasons. The rest of the world has much softer boundaries (for instance the BBC would fund 2 hour films for a UK TV audience that would get shown outside the UK in cinemas).

    Kieslowski's Decalogue, considered by many to be one of the great works of cinema is a 10 hour series for Polish TV. Or is it? It's been shown in movie theatres in the west, is continuoisly ranked on critics lists of top ten movies of all time, and no less than Stanley Kubrick thought it was one of the great works, if not _the_ great work of cinema.

    Length is really the only distinguishing factor. But even that Is breaking down. I recently watched all 12 and a half hours of the extended Lord of the Rings. That's longer than most TV mini-series in he 80s.

    If you look at novels a much more mature medium - we don't judge quality by length. Nor do we distinguish between novels that were released in serialised form (Dickens) with those released in a single volume format (most 20th century novels). They're all just novels on the print technology of your choice: hardback, paperback or ebook.

    Now film and TV are all just moving pictures on the screen size of your own choice: IMAX, movie theatre, home projector, TV, laptop, iPad, iPhone.

  • William Dunmyer | April 8, 2012 7:07 AMReply

    One thing I find intriguing in this set of discussions is that everyone presumes quality television like 'Breaking Bad' gets a big audience. Shows like that are talked about a lot by journalists, but they don't attract a large audience. The TV that ordinary people are watching is 'American Idol' and 'Dancing with the Stars.' It cannot be denied that premium-cable TV shows are triggering more water-cooler conversation among educated people than arthouse cinema. But let's not forget where the American masses are really at. They like popcorn movies at the multiplex and dumb TV shows when they go home. That's the state of the culture.

  • Cole Abaius | April 6, 2012 10:55 AMReply


    I wouldn't say my article (which you linked) extols the rise of TV over film. In fact, I argue we shouldn't be comparing them at all. One doesn't have to rise while the other falls either. I'm dismissing Wolcott's piece because his central premise pretends that these two different art forms are somehow comparable.

  • Tomris Laffly | April 6, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    Great piece Matt! Especially thank you for calling out the fact that Wolcott hasn't seen some of the best film offerings of the last year. To me, his piece tries to argue 'why TV is better', but actually ends up arguing 'why people nowadays prefer TV' instead. And that preference doesn't solely stem from the fact that TV is better (which it isn't...and I don't even think it's a relevant comparison), but also that audiences are increasingly lazy, they don't want to step out of their comfort zones by watching challenging films and thus, can't be bothered to leave their homes to invest a couple of hours (and some $$) in films like TAKE SHELTER. Wolcott doesn't touch upon this at all, unless I'm missing something. People aren't choosing to stay in because TV is simply better; but instead, TV programming is catering to the masses who had already chosen to not go to the theater. I am not denying there are many fascinating shows on TV nowadays, yet I'm seeing the cause and effect in reverse.

    Another point is, blaming Hollywood for continuing to produce crap (and hence announcing "Film is dead. TV prevails.") is the easy way out. But the unspoken thing here is audiences choose to spend $$ on films like, say, TRANSFORMERS instead of TAKE SHELTER. Is it all Hollywood's fault?

    Long story short, if there is a decline in the number of good-quality films in theaters, I blame the audiences primarily. Not the industry.

  • anonymous | April 9, 2012 1:13 PM

    I think its a cycle. Lots of people went to see Star Wars,Batman, Spiderman etc so the studios made a lot more effects driven blockbusters and a lot less dramas and smaller movies.That gradually took those movies out of the mainstream and made audiences even less willing to see them.

  • William Dunmyer | April 8, 2012 7:23 AM

    Thank you, Tomris Laffly, for noting that everyone is ignoring quality films today. But you said, "If there is a decline in the number of good-quality films in theaters...." I see no decline in the number of good films. It's just that you, Matt Singer, and I are the only people going to see them! It drives me nuts when people today say that there are no good films to see. Why does everyone want to pretend that quality cinema doesn't exist right now? They seem to want to hide the fact that they ignore serious films, like they are ashamed of this on some level.

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