Movies vs. TV

Published October 22, 2019

Woman eats popcorn holding a remote

I recently discovered the podcast Robot or Not which is an audio show where: “Jason Snell asks John Siracusa to rule on the meaning of various words and concepts. It’s not just about robots anymore.” I have been listening to the entire back catalogue, partly because the episodes are so short but also because they’re so fascinating.

As the title suggests, the concept started out solely about robots but has branched out to food, ethics, religion and actually quite a lot about food. One of the older episodes I listened to was all about how to distinguish between movies and television these days.

I’ve talked before about the problems I’ve had defining an album for my music challenge, and whilst I don’t seem to have quite the same problem with movies, it has occasionally crossed my mind. Do documentaries count, how short is too short, etc, etc.

Jason and John talked about this for twenty minutes or so and below is some (not all) of their discussion that I really found thought-provoking.

The older the more different?

First up, it’s about how the fundamental concept of the two used to be so clearly defined but have started to blur at the edges.

John: This has probably always been true but it was easier to think that it wasn’t because we had such different venues. Movies, you see them in a movie theatre, and TV is on a TV. You could see movies on TV later.

Jason: And the budgets were completely different. You had made for TV movies, but they weren’t on film budgets, generally. It’s not wrong to say that 20-25 years ago, people who worked in movies didn’t work in TV, and people who worked in TV didn’t work in movies. You either were a TV person or not, and if you were in TV and you were successful, you couldn’t break into movies easily.

Next, the pair discussed what exactly the difference might be so that we can work towards a definition – both for our own benefit, and maybe for the Oscars as well!

John: They were separated by all sorts of things to do with technology, budgets, the way they were funded and controlled… as all those lines have blurred, it has revealed what was always true, the definition of movie is about the format of the content. As in, a one and a half to three hour self-contained story, that’s a movie.

A television show is episodic and there are a bunch of episodes that make a larger story, or not. They’re just stand-alone or whatever. I feel like the Academy is going to have to catch up with that because it is a silly distinction.

The Netflix effect

I currently have my Netflix subscription paused but am gearing up to re-subscribe in time for alllll the Christmas movies. But John described something that struck him whilst he was picking something to watch from the streaming service recently, how hard it is to tell from the browsing pages exactly what you’re looking at.

John: I feel like Netflix could do well to label things as movies or television shows… If I’d clicked through I could have seen there were no episodes or whatever… but that distinction, movie or television show, is important for the consumer because what am I getting into? Am I getting into a six-episode season one? Is it an ongoing thing? Or is it a movie? Movies can have sequels and everything but that’s something I feel like they need to present to people.

Jason: So is that the definition then of the difference between TV and movies? It has to do with the standalone nature and perhaps some runtime? Although there can be short films… the place that’s a little bit of a wrinkle is anthology series’ where you could say there is a series of films. Black Mirror is an example of that. There have been a few Black Mirror episodes that are in the ninety minute range…

But then the pair come to the conclusion that Black Mirror is definitely TV because although they don’t have the same characters every week, it’s produced and directed by the same set of people, released as a group and is certainly intended to be watched together.

Marvel changing the game

Black Mirror is a tricky one and the other elephant in the room is Marvel.

John: We’ve got the semi-self-contained nature, in that you’re telling a story even if it leads into a sequel or ends in a cliff-hanger, there’s still a story there. The length. And also the final thing we have not yet blurred that may take a while to blur is just how many of these things are there, and over a length of time. There’s lots of Marvel movies but they didn’t dump a series of 12 of them on you at once. I don’t think it’s possible to have a movie series that over the course of two years has 26 entries. Even if you release them into movie theatres, I think you have made a very expensive television show at that point.

And to sum it all up, although the podcast talked about more topics than I’ve picked out here and is certainly worth a listen to in its entirety, is that although we can come to conclusions at the moment, that may not always be the case.

Jason: The Marvel Cinematic Universe and its success is not just about comic book storytelling, it’s about television storytelling. It’s about the fact you can build this interlinked world, you can have those payoffs. I keep referring to the Avengers Infinity War and Endgame movie as the season finale of Marvel. If you haven’t watched the other movies, you can maybe make sense of it but it’s not going to be meaningful in the way it is. We’re expecting the audience will have seen all our movies.

The movies are becoming more like TV and TV’s becoming more like movies. I think we can still find a definition here but it’s amazing how much more poorly defined they are. It used to be very clear, now it’s a bit of a mess.

And I think we can all agree, it’s only going to become more so. But that’s part of the fun of it. Why should media stick to these rigidly defined areas? If nothing ever changed, we’d all be sitting listening to radio plays on the wireless at 7pm of an evening. Entertainment is always evolving, and we have the joy of trying to keep up with it.

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