Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Golden Age of Television

So I thought today I would show you guys the recent essay I wrote for my Film course on the new age of quality television. In the essay I look at both the television and film industry and the influences they have on each other. Television has changed alot over the years and we are now getting higher quality programmes that can rival that of a big budget film. This is a bit different to the stuff I usually write and as I am not used to writing academic essays I'm not sure how good this one is! But I thought you guys might still take an interest in the subject, so please enjoy and let me know what you think!

The Golden Age of Television

Throughout the years television has always been seen as a lesser medium than film and in most cases of the past it can be argued that this is true (WILLIAMS, 1974). However within the last 10 years, TV has seemed to have taken off in terms of popularity and quality. With the development of private companies such as HBO and AMC, gradually TV has high quality products such as Game of Thrones (2010) and Breaking Bad (2008) that are as good as, and in some cases, outclass the quality of films that are considered to be within the same genre. TV is even having an effect on the film industry with studios such as Marvel, taking a long format approach to their films leading up to a ‘finale’ like finish with Avengers Assemble (2012). This essay will examine the work of theorists Raymond Williams and John Ellis, who both criticise TV in their theories, and look at why their theories are now out of date and how the film and TV industry are now influencing each other.

Theorist Raymond Williams discusses the experience of watching US broadcast TV. He notes how he could not get into the ‘flow’ of a show as he was constantly bombarded by commercials for other programs later that day, not just at the frequent commercial breaks but also when the show was playing. This distracted him from his viewing and he was unable to make full sense of the show he was watching (WILLIAMS, 1974). He sums it up by saying ‘It would be like trying to describe having read two plays, three newspapers, three or four magazines, on the same day that one has been to a variety show and a lecture and a football match.’ (WILLIAMS, 1974).

John Ellis has a different view on William’s statement he argues ‘The ‘spot’ advertisement is in many ways the quintessence of TV. It is a segment of about thirty seconds that, compromising a large number of images and sounds which are tightly organised amongst themselves…They are sparklingly diverse, the shiny surface wrapping of a domestically oriented consumerist society. They are also the supremely televisual product: hence another part of their exhilaration, that of seeing a medium used for itself, and not weighed down by cultural presumptions that are not its own.’(ELLIS, 1982) Ellis argues that commercials are a fundamental part of TV and they are what separate it from other mediums. However I believe that both Ellis’s and William’s arguments are out of date as they are referring to broadcast television, of which the model has changed since the quotes were written. Now, you also get Cable and Subscription channels which have taken influence from film. Channels such as HBO will show the whole programme uninterrupted, this is a very significant change to the television model that Williams and Ellis wrote about, and this change may also account for the increased investment by the audience and TV producers in high quality drama. Since then the whole model of TV has changed with channels charging customers for their products, broadcast TV is still here but most people pay for cable TV which features channels such as ABC or AMC who have more money to play with and use it to make higher quality television then Network channels that are free. Also, with the introduction of privately funded channels such as HBO, the introduction of ‘Video on Demand’ services, such as Netflix, and a generation of ‘binge watchers’ buying box sets we now see less commercials than ever, so what we are watching now, can it be classed as TV?
HBO, the private company behind The Sopranos (1999) and Game of Thrones, set out to update and rework the quality and nature of TV; ‘Advertising itself with the audacious marketing claim, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” the channel brands itself as something worth paying for. In fact HBO has made much capital from cultural snobbery around television as it sets out to appeal to the college-educated audience who supposedly do not watch TV’ (MCCABE & AKASS, 2008) The new model offered by HBO depended on a marketing campaign that highlighted the difference between broadcast TV and its products.  Due to the company being a private one, they get their money by people paying for their services allowing the audience to watch a show uninterrupted, without commercial breaks and on screen advertisements. This is something that Williams wanted from TV, however he felt that he did not get into the flow of TV due to the distractions on screen and during breaks, concluding his argument that TV is one big money making commercial in itself.

HBO really set a new standard of quality for their TV shows and fundamentally changed in the formal qualities of TV drama, so much so that it has even had implications on the film industry. HBO changed the TV industry with many channels trying to bring just as high quality TV shows to their audiences. HBO also release one off ‘Television Films’ and have even released films into cinemas under their name. HBO programmes tend to have many film aesthetics in them and the company have even used film directors such as Martin Scorsese to bring a new audience to their channel, allowing them to direct and produce their shows, with Scorsese directing the pilot of Boardwalk Empire (2010) and then going on to produce the rest of the series. This is a trend that has caught on in the industry with David Fincher directing the first few episodes of House of Cards (2012), Neil Marshall directing an episode of Game of Thrones and Rian Johnson who has directed a couple of award winning episodes of Breaking Bad. HBO even hired indie filmmaker Lena Dunham to write and direct her own TV series Girls (2011), produced by comedy filmmaker Judd Apatow. HBO’s desire to be more than TV isn’t just aesthetical but behind the scenes as well, this is something that not all channels have been able to accomplish just yet.

Network TV has also been influenced by film and channels such as CW have tried to up the
quality of their shows by taking elements of successful films and applying to their structure. However, network TV is not entirely able to get its shows to the same standard as HBO because it is subject to more regulation and is limited in terms of what it can show at what times. One of TV’s most recent series Arrow (2012), shows the influence that film has on the medium. Arrow is an adaption of DC comic book Green Arrow. The TV shows style and tone is similar of that of the hugely successful Christopher Nolan Batman films, as Stephen Kelly discusses in his article for The Guardian; ‘Arrow tries its best to distinguish itself, that's not the only debt owed to the Caped Crusader. Arrow's tone of gritty realism is an obvious product of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films – a trilogy that finally showed comic-book adaptations can be conduits for serious, intelligent storytelling.’ (KELLY, 2012). The fact that the formula for the recent Batman films worked can then be applied to other TV show which is exactly what Arrow has done. Unfortunately the show does not pull it off quite the same, however the finale felt like it fully embraced the superhero genre with the episode feeling like it had been ripped out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. The show has had the highest ratings for the channel ever. CW also airs The Vampire Diaries (2009) which takes elements from popular teen film franchise Twilight (2008). Due to its limitations network TV will never show the same quality of programs that HBO has, as proven recently with TV show Hannibal (2013), a network show which has been banned in some states of America due to its graphic and controversial violence. A show like Hannibal would not be questioned on HBO as it is a subscription channel that has a reputation for adult programming, but as anyone can see the show on Network TV then that creates a debate as to what type of content should visible to the public as a whole rather than to just ones who pay for it.

With TV being more popular and of a higher quality than it used to be, it seems that the film industry is taking note, with a lot of films taking influence from popular TV shows or some studios even opting for a long format way of showing their films that are similar to a way a whole ‘season’ of a TV show might map out. Most notably Marvel’s Phase 1 Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man (2008),  Marvel started to build an interconnected universe around their film properties. In doing so they had five movies leading up to one big ‘finale’ Avengers Assemble where the characters from the previous films team up to stop and army of aliens
from taking over the planet. This format worked in favour for the studio and Avengers Assemble ended up taking over 1 billion dollars at the box office and became the 3rd highest grossing film of all time ( This format of producing films in a ‘series’ before a big ‘finale’ is being used once again as Marvel have just started the second phase in their universe with Iron Man 3 (2013) and have 3 more films planned that will lead into the finale being a second Avengers film. In their phase 2 plans they have also just announced a new TV show called Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D (2013) that will also tie into the second Avengers film. Is this jump to TV an indication of what Marvel thinks of the present day TV industry and is the company making the first step into what could be a new era where film and TV is brought together and merged into one? It makes more sense as to why Marvel would hire Joss Whedon to overlook the project as his background has been mainly in TV. This could definitely be the future of both industries with films like Zombieland (2009) and Bad Teacher (2011) both trying to convert their story ideas to the small screen and on the other side we see shows like Arrested Development (2003) and Veronica Mars (2004) making the transition to the big screen. Even big film actors have started taking the lead roles in various television series such as Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

In our day and age audiences seem to watch TV in large chunks; this is something that can be referred to as ‘binge watching’. With more and more people investing in box sets of TV series, we can now watch a whole series of a program without being interrupted by commercial breaks or having to wait for the next episode to be released. And with the quality of some TV being very high at the moment you can essentially end up watching a 13 hour film in one day. These new attitudes towards television series and our viewing habits have really made companies and producers think about their new generation of audience. This has changed how some show providers will release their material, such as Netflix who released House of Cards (2012?) as a whole series ready to watch online instead of releasing each episode weekly. Is this the new age of TV? Maria Sciullo seems to think so as she writes, ‘Netflix, a company formerly associated with red-and-white DVD mailers, is on its way toward producing quality shows that will be part of the brave new world of "TV Everywhere."’ (SCIULLO, 2013)

This change in attitude towards TV has brought new light on to the once disregarded industry. What does this mean for film, a once thriving industry that could now start to slow, has cinema become so full of safe franchises and blockbusters that people in the industry have had to step towards television just to take a risk and make something more experimental? It seems as if film director Steven Soderbergh has done just that, after making films for many years he has decided to retire from the industry following his last film for HBO; Behind the Candelabra (2013). In a recent interview he had these words to say about the film industry; ‘I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people … Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.’(Soderbergh, 2013). Is this one of the reasons that TV is getting more investment in this day and age than it ever used too? Companies like Amazon are now allowing anybody to send in ‘Pilot Episodes’ for TV series that can end up becoming part of their streaming on demand service. Game of Thrones was recently reported to having an estimated 70-80 million dollars spent on their second season (The Empire Podcast, 2012) this is something that 10 years ago would have been unheard of.

TV has changed a lot within the last ten years, making the arguments from Ellis and Williams out of date, we don’t just have Network TV anymore, we have cable, subscription and online streaming channels that don’t always have a commercial every five minutes affecting the flow of program, but that doesn’t mean we are not watching TV anymore. We are coming towards a future where audiences have more faith in the TV model. With the film industry taking less risks and not investing in smaller movies, people are moving across from the industry over to TV where they know that smaller but more interesting programs are going to be made. That being said the film industry is not failing; instead it is adapting, using the television model or taking influence from it in order to establish successful film franchises or just to branch out on to the small screen. The film industry finally has some respect for TV and sees the potential and future in the industry. It seems after being seen as the lesser medium, television has reinvented itself with the help from channels such as HBO, and we can now see programmes that will match or be better than the quality and style of some of the best films, making the future of TV a bright one.

Arrested Development. [TV Program] FOX, 2003 – Netflix
Arrow. [TV Program] CW, 2013 – Sky 1
Avengers Assemble. 2012. [Film] Directed by Joss Whedon. USA, Disney.
Beyond the Candelabra. 2013. [Film] Directed by Steven Soderbergh. USA, HBO.
Boardwalk Empire. [TV Program] HBO, 2010 – Sky Atlantic
Breaking Bad. [TV Program] AMC, 2008 – Netflix
Game of Thrones. [TV Program] HBO, 2010 – Sky Atlantic
Girls. [TV Program] HBO, 2012 – Sky Atlantic
Hannibal. [TV Program] NBC, 2013 – Sky Living
House of Cards. [TV Program] Netflix, 2013 - Netflix
Iron Man. 2008. [Film] Directed by Jon Favreau. USA, Paramount Pictures.
Iron Man 3. 2013. [Film] Directed by Shane Black. USA, Disney.
The Vampire Diaries. [TV Program] CW, 2009 – ITV 2
Twilight. 2008. [Film] Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. USA, Summit Entertainment.
Veronica Mars. [TV Program] CW, 2004 – 2007. CW

Box Office Mojo, 2013. Marvel’s The Avengers. [Online] Available at <> [Accessed 27 May 2013]
ELLIS, John. 1982. ‘Broadcast TV as Cultural Form’ in Visible Fictions, Cinema: Television: Video. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. P118
Empire, 2012. Empire Podcast – Neil Marshall Game of Thrones Special (June 2012).The Empire Podcast. [podcast] June 2012. Available at <> [Accessed 26 May 2013]
KELLY, Stephen. 2012. ‘Does Arrow Hit the Target?’ The Guardian. [Online] 23rd October. Available at <> [Accessed 22 May 2013]
MCCABE Janet, AKASS Kim. 2008. ‘It’s Not TV, It’s HBO’s Original Programming’ in It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. Marc LEVERETTE, Brian L. OTT, Cara Louise BUCKLEY (eds.) New York, Routledge. p85
SCIULLO, Maria. 2013. ‘Netflix Model of Online Series Could Create New TV World’ in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. [Online] 26th May. Available at <> [Accessed 27 May 2013]
Soderbegh, S. 2013. Interview with New York Magazine Interviewed by…Mary Kaye Schilling [magazine] February 4 2013
WILLIAMS, Raymond. 1974. ‘Programming Distribution and The Flow’ in Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Third Edition 2004, New York, Routledge. P 92-96

I hope you enjoyed the essay, let me know what you thought in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!

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