For most of the 20th century, it was Hollywood and the movie theater teaming up to capture the attention and imagination of American audiences. Big name actors, larger than life sets and epicly romantic stories full of escapism and drama. As the century grew old and expired, the Hollywood blockbuster was stronger than ever – cranking out summer popcorn flicks that continually broke record after record in ticket revenue along with Oscar-bait dramas and tragedies that showcased the best the craft had to offer.
While this was going on, the film’s younger sibling, television, was mired in a wasteland of reality programming. As movie producers spent more and more money on their event movies, TV execs struggled to gain audiences in an increasingly crowded landscape of niche cable channels and seemingly endless options. Broadcast networks, historically the powerhouses of television, were hemorrhaging viewers and looking to cut costs as their advertisers drifted away. This spawned the rise of reality television – programs that didn’t rely on expensive writers, but enticed viewers with cheap thrills, backstabbing and shock while spending very little money on sets or actors. As audiences were bidding farewell to what seemed like the last wave of good programming like Seinfeld and The X-Files, the future looked grim. And then something unexpected happened: movies got terrible.
Yes, the seemingly invincible Hollywood machine started to show its cracks. It seemed that the fountain of interesting and original ideas dried up and the studios were forced to rely on remake after remake and sequel after sequel. All the big-budget movies were now rehashes of movies from yesterday. The risk-averse producers realized that original-idea movies don’t play as well with audiences as they used to. Nowadays, it’s recognizable properties (that come with built-in audiences) that provide the best return on investment. People will flock to movies that have familiar franchise associations or even just familiar actors in them. Fail to provide either of those two elements and the movie will struggle.
So while many of these franchise films are viewed a good cinema, this remake/sequel epidemic has been raging in Hollywood for the past 10+ years now and has produced many a crappy film. Overall ticket sales at movie theaters has dropped, perhaps due in part to the film quality, but also likely due to the ubiquity of home theater systems that rival those at the multiplex. Of course, Hollywood has responded to that threat by going all-in on 3D technology in a clumsy attempt to pry people away from their 1080p, surround sound systems at home.
Meanwhile, the pendulum swings. The creative exiles of Hollywood have found homes on the forgotten island of television and, in doing so, have sparked what some are calling The Golden Age of Television.
Indeed, the drop in interesting ideas in Hollywood has tipped the scales in favor of interesting ideas on television. Savvy TV producers noticed an opportunity and jumped at the chance to create challenging and engaging stories in the medium of a weekly television series. Outfits like HBO, Netflix, AMC and FX have led the charge and now more and more networks are trying their hand at creative original programming. And television clearly has the upper hand over movies in the creativity department. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, Dexter, The Sopranos, The Americans, Battlestar Galactica, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are the topics of watercooler talk and not the latest, flash-in-the-pan big screen blockbuster. TV has even best film in the remake game by adapted classic films into amazingly good TV series like Fargo and Hannibal. The younger sibling of television has grown taller than her older sister.
- Television Allows Stories to Breathe – In a movie, you’ve got at most 3 hours to tell your characters’ stories. With television, you may have 40+ hours to tell the story. This allows for much more investment, much more growth, much more exploration than a movie would. You can dig deeper into your characters, push them further, pull them back and push them in a new direction. These days, audiences appreciate the long game (usually) and find satisfaction in callbacks and world-building much more than they do a quick linear telling.
- Television Has Stolen Good Actors – Many, many top shelf actors have found their way to the television medium. Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, etc. And even more actors that have “grown up” in the TV world have proven that they are just as good or better than many famous film actors (Bryan Cranston, Michael C. Hall, Jon Hamm).
- Television Takes Risks – Story not going the way you want it to? Blow it up. Take a hard left turn. Do whatever seems right. TV writers are allowed to drastically change the formula midstream if that’s what they want to do. Many great shows have reinvented themselves throughout their runs to keep the story moving in interesting directions.
- Television Goes to Dark Places – The era of the “anti-hero” may have ended with Walter White and Breaking Bad, but television has made itself famous with the exploration of the anti-hero. Putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a character who is unquestionably bad makes for great philosophical conflict and that’s been the hallmark of many of the best series of the last 10 years. Sure, anti-heroes have populated many movies during that time, but never have those characters captured the attention of audiences like Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan did – again, because we watched them travel their paths for so much longer.
- Television Comes to You – The very technology that Hollywood is struggling to combat is the technology that Television is banking on. People are much more apt to have a night “in” where they catch up on their DVR while sitting on their comfy couch in their PJs than to get a sitter and spend $25 on a junky movie. Television has formed itself around the new normal by configuring their shows to make viewers desperate for the next episode so they can keep right on watching.
These five distinctives, and many others, show why we are currently in The Golden Age of Television. Next, we will all watch to see if Hollywood is willing to adapt or if it will retreat further into it’s cheesy nostalgia cave. We will see how Television will confront it’s own rival technology: the Internet. Will Netflix continue to be the catalyst that sparks a new distribution standard, or will it become the rebel that make the cable giants dig in their heels and double down on their monopolies.
One thing is clear: creativity drives the entertainment machine. Where the creatives go, the medium will thrive. Story wins.