Is Television Inferior to Cinema Artistically? by Darrell Ron Tuffs

This essay is copyright of Darrell Ron Tuffs, please use references if using any of this information in your own work. 

Until recent years, cinema had always held a large artistic dominance over television. The cinema has always been home to huge spectacle films that, for the most part, remain firmly on top of the world’s entertainment outlets in terms of scale. But, films have also allowed smaller character studies and technical cinematic masterpieces of storytelling to flourish within its frames. For many years of television, the same could not be said, or at least, not seen worthy of discussion. Television has always largely been viewed as popular culture for mass audiences. And, unlike the cinema, made quickly at very low costs. Because of this, television had never been viewed as a medium that could ever match the artistic achievements of cinema, reluctantly remaining inferior in its artistic status.

However, in years passed, this perception has changed dramatically, we may now be living in the first golden age of modern television, particularly that of the USA. Networks such as HBO and AMC are now producing and broadcasting stunningly popular TV series such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, of which, it can be argued, harbor just as much storytelling and artistic merits as anything made for modern cinema release. How and from where did this golden age rise? And, does it mean that artistically speaking, television is no longer inferior to cinema?

Although cinema throughout its history has somewhat been influenced and involved in popular culture and commercialism, a large section of film has always been able to thrive outside the Hollywood system as an independent vision. World cinema has often been able to move the medium forward cinematically and artistically by means of creative freedom and improving technologies. This is because, unlike television, cinema at its roots was less commercial, less reliant on advertising and more so on artistic vision and grandness to sell tickets and make money. This, in turn, allowed cinema’s cinematic aesthetic to grow and develop from its very beginnings, resulting in what we know as a “cinematic” visual tone in today’s modern viewing culture. This tone was largely accepted into public consciousness because of its ease in allowing audiences to submerse itself visually in storytelling, human nature, and, above all, an artistic social realism. “Painting was forced, as it turned out, to offer us illusion and this illusion was reckoned sufficient unto art. Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all, and in its very essence, our obsession with realism” (Bazin, 1967: 12)

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire

From its very first broadcasts, television has indeed been sculptured around a model of mass viewing and communication, catering to a vast range of public ideas and demographics. Television started to develop at first, not cinematically, but commercially. And, is currently not only the world’s main source of communication and information, but also its most popular leisure activity. Jane Stokes, in her book, describes television as “an entertainment medium; a scientific phenomenon; a multifaceted industry … a feature of modern public life which has a place in nearly every private home.” (Stokes, 2000: 1) Television can be a powerful media tool, and has quickly revolutionized the way we as a society are fed information. But, does this mean that a cinematic level of artistic achievement could never radiate from its screen?

Indeed, in most parts of the world, television is just that, a powerful media communication tool, which can be used for both good and evil by ruling authorities. Even in our current cultural climate, television has still only managed to thrive as a dramatic and influential art in the UK, USA and a handful of other countries. There are many possible explanations to why this may be, including larger financial investments, a world dominance of the English language, and growing pools of talent and training within the media of television in these few leading countries.

When it comes to larger financial investments now being made in television, no series stands grander than American broadcaster HBO’s Game of Thrones. With average episodes reportedly costing around $6 million to make, “Game of Thrones” is now the most expensive television series of all time. And, in its production, matches a level of achievement seen in the best of what is now being made for modern cinema release. The show has also secured a huge global fan base, achieving record-breaking weekly ratings for HBO. “Game of Thrones averaged 7.155 million viewers for its regular-timeslot premiere on Sunday, and 8.6 million viewers for the night. Season-to-date, the average gross audience per episode of “Thrones” is 17.8 million viewers, an improvement of 24% vs. this point of last season (14.4 million)” (Kissell, 2014). Weekly ratings on this scale means that Game of Thrones and many other shows like it, can easily justify larger investments being made by broadcasters such as HBO. And, can now use those investments to equal a tone and visual style only visible in cinema until recent years. Of course, financial success on its own does not guarantee artistic superiority. But, used in the right way, these investments can be the greatest of assets for new talent working in television.

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones

So, in turn, this aesthetic and artistic development in television has been made possible, in part, by growing audience ratings. The greater amount of global audience shows such as Game of Thrones can secure, the more they can be presented cinematically, and harbor within them, greater potential for artistic achievement.

A significant knock-on effect of this greater investment for television, is the growing amount of artistic talent the medium can now draw in. Television no longer has the stigma of being cinema’s less talented, unattractive younger brother. Its form is being challenged and redefined by the talent of new developers, writers, and directors. This talent, before recent years, would have been reserved only for the more prestigious and glamorous world of cinema, leaving television to rely on its more traditional formats. Major film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Gus Van Sant, are now contributing towards, and directing television series such as Boardwalk Empire and Luck, bringing with them innovative and artistic cinematic merits.

Television is also borrowing talent from the cinema in the form of cinematically minded writers and actors, allowing the medium to grow artistically and dramatically. Take, for example, television series True Detective. “In film, scriptwriters typically have their work turned over to more writers for rewrites. But in True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto wrote the entire series, with McConaughey and Harrelson already cast. … The production team also came out of feature films, not TV” (Helmore, 2014). These creative teams are now starting to notice that television was, all along, suited aesthetically and structurally to a greater level of dramatic and technical innovation. Television is not only being made to look and feel like cinema, but is now also being created partly by the same people.

True Detective
True Detective

Of course, the ideas discussed so far have largely been based on what we often call “Quality TV”. But, the aesthetic held by most of the world’s television outlet is based on what we call “Ordinary TV”. This is television format at its least innovative, created for consistency and audience clarity. Soap operas such as Eastenders or Coronation Street have, indeed, kept true to original aesthetics since their very beginnings. In viewing televised news bulletins or new daytime TV game shows, this strict sense of format is also apparent. “Ordinary TV” has developed non-challenging and viewer-friendly ways of connecting with audiences, seeming recognizable and structurally balanced, not to visually threaten audiences in any way.

In fact, early television was sometimes criticized as just combining “the close-up of the motion picture, the spontaneity of the living stage and the instantaneousness of radio” (Gould, 2002: 36). At the same time, world cinema was ever changing, and constantly moving through forms and visual stages. However, recent “Quality TV” has allowed itself to move beyond this. The discussed, Game of Thrones, works tonally as small segments of a larger piece for cinema, only, made for television. This new range of television aesthetics has occurred without audience revolt, and has now been socially accepted as the finest the medium has to offer artistically.

While evaluating how much artistry television has gained in its recent new golden age, it is hard to overlook the popular AMC series Breaking Bad. The show is itself, a gold mine of creative and technical decisions, from its brave and sometimes enigmatic visual style, to its puzzled, non-linear narrative; Breaking Bad is a pure example of modern television artistry. The show often presents its characters expressively; feeling more emotionally grounded than television ever has before. Character motives are given just as much creative attention as plot, and story structure just as much as writing. The show is, in every aspect, a highly artistic achievement.

Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, and other new groundbreaking television shows like it, are developing complex serial storytelling skills, of which, have been proved well suited to the long-form format that television holds as a major merit. These new, more artistic ways of telling stories on television have been said to successfully “engage at the level of formal analyst, dissecting the techniques used to convey spectacular displays of storytelling craft; … a level of awareness that transcends the traditional focus on diegetic action typical of most viewers” (Mittell, 2006: 36).

For decades, we have understood that cinema can hold within itself, as much artistry as a Van Gogh painting, and as much raw human emotion as the sweetest of Beethoven’s symphonies. Why do audiences freeze with horror when the shark from Jaws terrorizes innocent human lives? Why do our hearts sink with sadness when the little tramp’s child is snatched away from him in The Kid? Why do we keep returning to moments like these in cinema? It’s the same reason we still look into the eyes of the “Mona Lisa” or the sky in “The Starry Night”. Cinema has developed, not only as a huge, global entertainment source, but also, as a way of connecting deeply with emotionally charged individual moments. These moments subconsciously submerse us into the mindset of other human beings, allowing audiences to understand the true meaning of artistic achievement.

This is achieved, in part, by realism, and cinema’s ability to project a constructed world, of which we know is distant from ours, but in turn, creates emotional similarities. Because of its history of development, television has been used since its birth, as a multi-format media. We view real-world news bulletins, sports competitions, and quiz shows, on the same box as constructed and dramatized human stories attempting to mirror realism. It is for this reason that television drama has struggled artistically against the cinema; society often creates strong connections with television and social communication, in turn, hindering the possible artistic merits of constructed television fiction. “Television realism is often expressed by the metaphors of transparency or reflection – television is seen either as a transparent window on the world or as a mirror reflecting our own reality back to us” (Fiske, 1987).

Luck
Luck

Television has expanded artistically recently because of our deeper acceptance of it as more than a source of entertainment or information. Filmmakers and audiences are now challenging and demanding greater experiences from the medium, in the form of storytelling, aesthetic, and production. However, television is not achieving this by distancing itself from cinema. In fact, the two forms are now closer than they ever have been. “The medium has traditionally been looked down on by the movie side of the entertainment industry. But many in the business feel that television is finally getting some respect” (Vas, 2005: 55). This is partly because, now, we are viewing more films on television at home, not only scheduled for television, but on streaming services such as “Netflix” or “LoveFilm”. We no longer need to visit the cinema to see new releases or challenging works of art, most of these can now be found on television or the Internet. Because of this, the cinema experience itself is losing cultural relevance.

Every aspect of television and cinema are becoming closer, of the two, cinema still has a global edge. But, if television culture continues to progress, it will soon overshadow its former self, becoming a new, more exciting place to explore the possibilities of visual art, and dramatic storytelling.

What’s your opinion? Please comment below.

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Sources:  

Bazin, A. (1967). ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image.’ In What is Cinema, Volume 1, trans. Hugh Gray, 9-16. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture: Methuen & Co. Ltd: Padstow, Cornwall. Republished to Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2001. Available at: http://www.qiu.ir/Files/110/Document/General/1391/7/29/b9d277831ee0465bb55a58c209ddfbf5.pdf (online PDF file) Across date: 25th May, 2014

Gould, J. (2002) “Matter of Form: Television Must Develop Its Own Techniques If It Is To Have Artistic Validity”, in Watching Television Come of Age: The New York Times Reviews by Jack Gould, ed. Lewis L. Gould, Austin, University of Texas Press, 36.

Helmore, E. (2014) “Silver screen to small screen: why film directors are taking over TV” (online article) Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/mar/15/why-film-directors-are-taking-over-tv Access date: 21 May 2014

Kissell, R. (2014) “Game of Thrones’ Sets Another Ratings Record” (online article) Available at: http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/hbos-game-of-thrones-sets-another-ratings-record-john-oliver-show-rises-1201172981/ Access date: 19th May 2014

Mittell, J. (2006) “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, The Velvet Light Trap 56: 36

Stokes, J. (2000). On Screen Rivals: Cinema and Television in the United States and Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1.

Vas, M. (2005) The Lost Chronicles: The Official Companion Book, London: Transworld Publishers and New York: Hyperion, 55.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Nowadays, I’d say yes. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, television had superb drama as well as a few duds. The 80s had some peachy stuff too. We need much more drama on television again. I’m not the only one to be yearning for the death of talent shows and reality programmes and the return of Play for Today or Armchair Theatre and for the channels to be an opening for the current Dennis Potters and Ken Loaches et al. Where are they? I’m sure they’re slogging away somewhere but being turned down by the corporate profit-mongers.

  2. I think there’s more needed to compare the two than aesthetic and dramatic principles. For the past couple decades it’s been possible for individual consumers to own a superior viewing setup than what you can experience in any commercial theater. Because you can get a big, sharp screen and have 7.1 surround sound in close physical proximity at home, where the food and the seats are better, you have access to more levels of nuanced content whether viewing movies or TV shows.

    Shows with larger budgets take advantage of this. Ones like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead (Downton Abbey, Mad Men etc.) ARE movies, and movie franchises, produced for home attendance. They regularly feature two-hour (and/or two part) episodes. They are movies made for very small theaters, but otherwise there’s no important difference. So my answer would be that films and TV are growing closer to being identical, the only distinction being the size of the arena.

    1. gentlebenno says:

      Really good points, the same thing is happening with the viewing of live sports, with a similar concern on the impact of in-person attendance.

  3. gentlebenno says:

    I have my issues with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead but you can’t argue that their creators aren’t interested/successful in creating detailed works on par with anything on the screen. Television is committed to putting out better artistic content than the film studios. There’s greater variety of channels willing to take risks, television budgets (particularly HBO) are at times as big as the studios, and a long television series has greater time to win back its money than a film. The film studios have only themselves to blame. They built a system dependent upon that one, big, blockbuster that would liberate their budget year. Now they have to play it so safe, that almost anything out there is a sequel or an old idea. It’s not art, it’s a budget drill to get as many folks in seats for three weeks while the window is open. On television, at least most things are fresh.

  4. beetleypete says:

    Although I tend to agree with First Night Design in her general point, here is my take on this issue, from my own blog. I come out in favour of ‘No’.
    http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/tv-shows-as-good-as-films/
    Good idea! Best wishes, Pete.

  5. sinnerz13 says:

    I think in the uk television has been strong particularly through Channel 4, but on a low budget. T.v has always taken more risk and has been particularly edgy and has brought out some great talent. They did not get mass audiences unlike now where shows like Breaking Bad and Game if thrones

  6. sinnerz13 says:

    Game of thrones which now have big budgets and a world wide audience. The acting and storylines are brilliant and are often superior to film. They are also riding the fear that they may be cut at any point. Great blog!

  7. I certainly like to think that I’m living in a “Golden Age” of television. For my part, I have greatly enjoyed shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Mad Men, and The Wire. I suspect that TV shows will continue to proliferate, while the number of movies released may decline in response to “individualized viewing” permitted by the fact that almost everyone owns a personal laptop. That said, don’t really feel as though I can make any accurate predictions. I’m curious to see what will happen in the next 5-10 years.

  8. sinnerz13 says:

    my mind reels through film | popcorn, plot and acting “darling”
    https://sindenlee3.wordpress.com/

  9. einatsohar says:

    I think it is not a matter of the medium, it is the talent of the people creating it. Twin Peaks was a masterpiece by David Lynch and it was a TV series, it might have been a bit more accessible than his films allowing it to reach a larger audience without compromising the quality. Even thou Twin Peaks was made for the small screen the photography was breathtaking and each episode was a celebration of creativity talent and of course a bit of madness. Oz was a brilliant TV series creating a micro cosmos of humanity inside a maximum security jail, it raised philosophical and social issues and was controversial and thought provoking. Danish thrillers such as The Killing and The Bridge are excellent intellectually stimulating thrillers that could teach a thing or two some movie makers. The more mediums the better to allow creative people to give us masterpieces whether on the big screen, the small screen or Netflix – the more the better – democracy of creativity!!

  10. I often feel that movies are like short stories. Some are perfect encapsulated stories but some leave you wanting more and that is when TV can really shine with character development and meaningful storylines (like a novel) but some things are better short and sweet. I love that TV is fulfilling that role now and making its type of long arc storytelling an art form.
    I think there is more room for experimentation in movies though and directors have more opportunity to mess with the way stories are told because it all unfolds over one sitting. Being too experimental in TV can alienate viewers due to the weekly wait for the next installment.

  11. great post. I think much of “Golden Age of TV” argument is rooted in the fact that we live in the age of the internet, social media, blogging, and instant episode recaps and reviews. If we’d had that in the 70s, there would have been “The Onedin Line: Episode Recap” posts all over the place, and reviews of last night’s “Callan”. Also, most of the US shows that we’re talking about here are on pay TV. US Network TV continues to be “ordinary”, I suppose. British TV has always had both, as you point out; there’s just as much crap on TV now as they’re always was, and just as much good stuff. Many bloggers who rave about “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective” are probably too young to remember “Boys from the Black Stuff”, “The Singing Detective”, “Threads”, or stuff like “I, Claudius” …. and long before the ratings juggernaut that is “Downton Abbey”, there was “Upstairs Downstairs”: the sets may have been a bit dodgy, and occasionally there would be a flash of light from the VT catching the set lights, but the characters, setting, issues and general point of view about the class system were the same.

  12. einatsohar says:

    Twin Peaks and OZ were for me the first TV series that were at the same artistic level as the cinema. The insane world of David Lynch in Twin Peaks was a little bit more accessible than his films, and the social criticism of OZ was so powerful that both these TV series could compare easily with artistic cinema. It is not the medium but the talent involved in the creation.

  13. I think as films become more expensive to create and as studios are taking less risks on challenging and engaging cinema. Netflix, Cable like Amc, Hbo and Showtime have really begun to fill that gap of adult-quality programming that used to be feature films. The talent that was drawn to those films is now drawn to Television and thus as you said “The golden age” of television is upon us:) I think that independent cinema and the tv world are only going to get better and not overtake Film but provide a more stable voice all around for talent in all levels of production.

  14. Meant to say big budget films more expensive 🙂

  15. pgr070856 says:

    In some ways, it’s possible that more attention to detail plus greater use of special effects may have improved some of what’s on television. But, it also seems that lately there’s more attention in film to quantity as opposed to quality.

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