THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FILMAND TELEVISION
We tend to think of film and television as rival media, but their histories are so deeply intertwined that thinking of them separately is often a hindrance to understanding how the film and television industries operate or how people experience these media in their everyday lives. Starting in the late 1950s, Hollywood studios began to produce substantially more hours of film for television (in the form of TV series) than for movie theaters, and that pattern holds to this day. Since the early 1960s, it has been apparent that feature films are merely passing through movie theaters en route to their ultimate destination on home television screens. As physical artifacts, films may reside in studio vaults, but they remain alive in the culture due almost entirely to the existence of television. Whether films survive on cable channels or on DVD, they rarely appear on any screens other than television screens once they have completed their initial theatrical release. Given the importance of television in the film industry and in film culture, why do we think of film and television separately?
First, when television appeared on the scene, there was already a tradition of defining the cinema in contrast with other media and art forms. Much classic film theory and criticism, for instance, sought to define film as an autonomous medium by comparing it with precedents in theater, painting, and fiction. In each case, the goal was to acknowledge continuities while highlighting the differences that made film unique. Within this framework, it seemed natural to look for the differences between film and television, even as the boundaries between the media blurred and television became the predominant site of exhibition for films produced in Hollywood.
Second, there is an inherent ambiguity in the way that the term "television" functions in common usage, and this complicates efforts to delineate the relationship between film and television. Depending upon the context of usage, the word "television" serves as convenient shorthand for speaking about at least four different aspects of the medium:
- Technology : "Television" is used to identify the complex system of analog and digital video technology used to transmit and receive electronic images and sounds. While electronic signals are transmitted and received virtually simultaneously, the images and sounds encoded in those signals may be live or recorded. In other words, the "liveness" of television—a characteristic often used to distinguish television and film—is inherent in the acts of transmission and reception, but not necessarily in the content that appears on TV screens.
- Consumer Electronics : "Television" also refers to the television set, an electronic consumer good that is integrated into the spaces and temporal rhythms of everyday life. While the movie theater offers a sanctuary, set aside from ordinary life, the TV set is embedded in life. Initially, the TV set was an object found mainly in the family home; increasingly, television screens of all sizes have been dispersed throughout society and can be found in countless informal social settings. As a consumer good, the HDTV set is also becoming a fetish object for connoisseurs of cutting-edge technology—independent of the particular content viewed on the screen.
- Industry : "Television" refers also to the particular structure of commercial television, a government-regulated industry dominated by powerful networks that broadcast programs to attract viewers and then charge advertisers for the privilege of addressing those viewers with commercials. Using the airwaves to distribute content, the television industry initially had no choice but to rely on advertising revenue, which led to the peculiar flow of commercial television—the alternation of segmented programs punctuated regularly by commercials—as well as the reliance on series formats to deliver consistent audiences to advertisers.
- Content : "Television" serves as a general term for the content of commercial television, particularly when comparing film and television. Considering the vast range of content available on television, this usage often leads to facile generalizations, suggesting that there is an inherent uniformity or underlying logic to the programs produced for television.
As a result of the ambiguity involved in the usage of the term "television," there is no sensible or consistent framework for thinking about the relationship of film and television. Instead, a single characteristic often serves as the basis for drawing a distinction between the two forms, even though it may obscure more significant similarities. For example, the common assumption that television is a medium directed at the home, while film is a medium directed at theaters, overlooks the importance of the TV set as a technology for film exhibition. Similarly, the emphasis on television's capacity for live transmission obscures the fact that most TV programs are recorded on film or videotape and that feature films make up a large percentage of TV programming.
Third, film has enjoyed a prestige that only recently has been accorded to television, and this status marker has encouraged people to view film and television separately. Every culture creates hierarchies of taste and prestige, and whether explicitly stated or implicitly assumed, film has had a higher cultural status than television. It has been a sign of success, for example, when an actor or a director moves out of television into movies. Similarly, film critics have enjoyed much greater prestige than any critic who has written about television. The scholarly field of film studies, and universities in general, were slow to welcome the study of television. All of this suggests that there has been an unrecognized, but nevertheless real, investment in a cultural hierarchy that treats film as a more serious and respectable pursuit than television, and this hierarchy supported the assumption that film and television are separate media. Of course, any hierarchy of cultural values is subject to change over time. When a television series like The Sopranos (beginning 1999) achieves greater critical acclaim than virtually any movie of the past decade, it is a signal that values are shifting.