by Peter John Ross
In the last 7 years or so, I love what’s happened with TV. The derivation between “TV” and “FILM” has blurred so much that some of the best cinematic works are now television shows. That’s the key word too – CINEMATIC. It seems that shows like THE SHIELD, 24, ROME, LOST, BAND OF BROTHERS, etc. have all gotten a much more cinematic, theatrical film look. TV used to be cheap, mediocre knock offs. If you wanted action-movie style on television you got THE A-TEAM where a lot of guns went got fired, lots of eh-okay explosions, but no one ever got shot or killed. In 1984 Michael Mann re-invented television with a very feature film-like TV series called MIAMI VICE. There weren’t too many regular series that did that until 1999 when the SOPRANOS first aired on HBO, a string of brilliant shows have spawned on cable and now regular networks.
Yes, today’s TV shows are getting more cinematic. People prefer to see the shows in HD on big screens and with 5.1 surround sound. Even E.R. has gone letterbox when broadcast in standard. The WEST WING was a letterbox, steadicam look like a feature.
Another trend crossing over from features is the stars. Not even 20 years ago, a TV star generally had a hard time crossing over to feature films without the public (and hence the studios) feeling like it cheapened the movie because “Why pay to see this star when we can see them for free on TV every week?” This dictum is hardly true anymore, and the opposite is getting to be more and more common as movie stars are doing guest appearances and even becoming series regulars on more popular shows. Good parts are coveted no matter what the venue, but television no longer inhibits career moves. That’s not even getting into directors like Quentin Tarantino guest directing C.S.I. and other similar Hollywood type crossovers to the “small screen”.
Killing off main characters in the interest of STORY or EMOTIONAL IMPACT (and for the business reason of increased ratings during a sweeps) used to be taboo. You could rely on network television to be “safe”, meaning there was never any real jeopardy for any of the opening credit cast members. The old adage of Star Trek and the “Red Shirt” ensigns who would consistently be killed off to create the drama in an episode are long gone. In today’s world anyone stuck on the mysterious island on LOST may get killed off (except maybe for the hot brunette chick and the muscled red neck because then there would be a lot less viewers). Today killing off a lead is a featured story in Entertainment Weekly and a guest seat on Conan O’Brien. When the audience invests 12 hours or even sometimes 50-100 hours to a character, their death has a much greater impact than a 2 hour movie, one of the benefits of today’s television.
Serializing shows has become a lot more common too. For over 40 years, you could rely on a network show to have a similar situation and setup every week and know that this story would be wrapped up within the hour and the consequences of that week’s episode would have no impact on the rest of the series, except during the rare 2 parter during February sweeps. Only soap operas went from episode to episode. Nowadays even sitcoms are serialized with the events of one episode having a lasting effect on everything after it. My guess is that audiences became more sophisticated and can retain more info than they were given credit for in the past.
Right now, I just finished off 4 seasons of NIP/TUCK from FX that rocked my boat and looked better than most features. It seemed they had great focus for seasons 1-2, then lost it in 3, and brought it home in season 4. I’m also joining the rest of America in the love of all things Jack Bauer on 24. As soon as you stop worrying that this would all happen in 1 single day, you can sit back and enjoy all the glorious albeit semi-meaningless action. When something is as well done as they do with 24, who cares about being “realistic”. It’s escapism. Even Reality Shows are hardly realistic. The only TV show with a realistic looking cast on TV today is the American version of THE OFFICE. Not since CHEERS have so many ugly & overweight people been on primetime. Personally, I love it.
What I really enjoy are the more epic and more satisfying STORIES. TV shows are becoming more like motion picture novels. To see a story that lasts 10-20 hours makes for a huge commitment, but thanks to DVD and VIDEO ON DEMAND/TiVo, it’s not impossible. My ultimate media hero JOSS WHEDON seems to be the master at TV series storytelling since he actually plans (unlike ABC’s LOST) a whole season at a time as well as planting seeds for stories that pay off years later, sometimes as much as 6-7 years later like he did on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, then laid the groundwork that never came to fruition on FIREFLY.
I think the UK has the best outlook on TV series. They value what we call the “mini-series” much more. They set out to tell limited stories, meaning they start when they already have an ending in mind, unlike the U.S. broadcasters. Ever hear the term “Jump the Shark”? This is in reference to HAPPY DAYS, a TV show that went 7-8 years past its prime. During a sweeps 2 parter event, they had the Fonz water ski over caged sharks (shortly after Jaws was in theatres). Many people said that the spectacle became more important than the story or characters, so it “jumped the shark” became a term for when TV shows overstay their welcome for viewers. BBC series like the original THE OFFICE and an even more innovative TV series called SPACED showed that even when a show becomes immensely popular, sometimes it’s better to go out on top than force characters and situations to go past the intended story ultimately making something unsatisfying for the cast/crew as well as the viewers.
TV shows on DVD are the surprise high seller for retailers. So much so, that old series are finding the light of day and turning new profits unexpectedly. Studios and networks underestimated the sentimentality of the average viewer. Or maybe they underestimated the vast amounts of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders that go undiagnosed until it manifests itself in the form of having 11 complete seasons of FRASIER on DVD.
The most recent and interesting (to me anyway) marketing attempt relates to season 6 of 24 that just started on Jan 14th. Because of the serialized nature of the show 24, the network holds off the premiere from the fall schedule where you would get a few new episodes, then repeats, then a few new ones, then repeats – etc. all year – they premiere in January every year now and then go straight on with a new episode every week so that the viewers are never allowed to be bored or lose interest. Lost is trying something similar going 6 new episodes in a row, then 18 new ones all in a row starting in February. Fox likes to give 24 a big bang when they premiere in January, so this year’s (and last year) they started off with a Sunday night 2 hour premiere, then another 2 hours on Monday night – really getting the audience pumped & cooking. Since the show is addictive, this works well to hook everyone.
The newest marketing ploy was releasing all 4 of these episodes on DVD on TUESDAY, the night after the 4th episode premiered. All I could think was “This kicks ass!” and then “I’ll bet the advertisers are pissed!” Here’s where this ploy has great risk and may affect the future of television. TV shows are made because of those annoying :30 commercials. I remind you of the obvious because with TV shows showing up on DVD, there’s no mention of the people who originally paid to get the show made and they aren’t seeing any of this new profit. Their incentive to continue to pay for advertising is dissipating. Part of what makes a commercial on a TV show profitable is that you’re paying for more than 1 airing (at least the national, anchor sponsors of any show). If people can buy the commercial free DVD the next day, the value of that commercial spot is lessened.
Unless all the networks become PAY PER VIEW or maybe if there’s even more product placement within a show itself, the TV industry is slowly heading into a new direction. Regardless, I find some of the most entertaining stories to be on television and not at the multiplex.