Thursday, 1 March 2012

What is TV?

If you are sitting at home watching an episode of Frasier (1993-2004) on your flatscreen TV it is reasonable to assume that if somebody asked you what you were doing you would answer "I'm watching TV." Let's say that next in the TV schedule came the film She's the One (Ed Burns 1996), and you continued to watch that. If somebody now asked you what you were doing you might still answer "I'm watching TV." or "I'm watching a film." But imagine instead that you had not being using your TV at all, you might not even have one, but found She's the One on BBC iPlayer and watched it on your computer. If somebody asked you now what you were doing you would in all likelihood not answer "I'm watching TV." Probably not even if you were watching Frasier, despite it being a TV-series. You would not say "I'm watching the computer." either. You would say "I'm watching Fraiser." and potentially add, "on the computer." to clarify.

Now, what is the point of this example? To illustrate that TV is loose term. It can mean the square box in the living room, it can mean all the things that are being shown on that square box, and it can mean a typical kind of moving images. But what they all have in common is that box. If nobody watches anything on a particular device called a TV, if instead all that is being watched is watched on computers or smartphones, then TV will cease to be, and we would no longer call a follow-up to Frasier a TV-series, but something else. Maybe just a series. To some extent, TV is just the tableau in the newspaper or the TV Guide.

This is not just hair-splitting, it raises some interesting questions. Today it is very popular to say that this is the golden age of TV, that TV has never been more important or better. I have never understood this, and it is very tempting to dismiss it as confused hogwash. The way I see it there are two flaws with the argument. One being that those making the argument are often depressingly ignorant of the last 60 years of TV history (see below). The other flaw is that you compare wildly different things. TV today, as has pretty much been the case since its inception, consists of news, documentaries, sports, soap operas, weather forecasts, movies, sitcoms, children's programmes and so on. In effect, this means that in order to say that TV is better today you would have to explain, for example, how children's programmes today is better than documentaries about nuclear waste from the late 1970s. If TV today is better than ever before, does this mean that Jersey Shore (2009-) is better than Scenes From a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap Ingmar Bergman 1973)? It was a silly question yes, but so is the argument.

But what people mean in general when they say that TV is better now is only that TV-series are better now. The problem here though is still one of comparisons. First of all, how many TV-series of yesteryears have today's writers actually seen? Secondly, there are a wide variety of TV-series being made, in different genres, and comparing them might be strange. It makes little sense to compare a series like The West Wing (1999-2006) with a show like Kojak (1973-1978) for example. But it would make sense to compare CSI (all of them, 2000-) with Kojak. Which one is the better one would be hard to argue about though, because although CSI is more modern, style-wise, that is not a sign of quality. If it was that would also seem to suggest that, say, This Means War (McG 2012) is automatically a better film than, say, The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford 1940).

So, considering that TV is so much more than just TV-series, and that TV has a long and rich history, I do not think it makes any sense to say that TV is better than it has ever been. However, I think it does make sense to argue that TV is coming to an end, and that one sign of this is that when people talk about this being a "golden age" of TV they do not really mean TV but HBO (and a few other studios). Maybe this is actually a golden age for a studio system while simultaneously being the demise of TV. Since these TV-series are often watched on DVD box sets or downloaded on to a computer they might even help accelerate the fall of TV. I would actually suggest that TV today, in general, is worse than it has been for quite some time. If you turn on the TV on any given day or night, chances are that you will only be able to chose between some game shows, some reality soaps, some talking heads shows and some sport events, regardless of how many channels you have got. If you want to see the good stuff you would not just turn on your TV but only together with your DVD-player, or just your computer.

In 2010, I wrote a post arguing that TV was a vital area of studies for film scholars and I also said a few words about TV history. To elaborate on TV history I will say this today:

There are many brilliant TV-series today, and some of them are among the best things ever done for TV. But today's TV-series do owe a lot to what came before. A key series is Hill Street Blues, which ran from 1981 to 1987. It had complex characters, it was set in the real, and very gritty, world of an American city, it was unpredictable and it was filled with political themes, it discussed topical issues and it had outbursts of anger and bitterness. It was followed by a number of other law and order shows, especially NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which style of filming has been a major influence on the likes of Lars von Trier. These shows were in contrast, in style, quality and ideology, to the more soapy series such as Dallas (1978-1991), Dynasty (1981-1991) and Falcon Crest (1981-1990), even though they were also influential and had sometimes baffling complexity. A TV-series which was somewhat in-between, but closer to the cop thrillers than the soap operas in its honesty, was L.A. Law (1986-1994). It is worth pointing out that Steven Bochco was co-writer, co-producer and creator of Hill Street Blues (together with Michael Kozoll, and David Milch as co-writer), NYPD Blue (together with David Milch) and L.A. Law (together with Terry Louise Fischer, and David E. Kelley as co-writer). If we look further, it is clear that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, American TV had an extraordinary period, when for example Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Don Siegel made made-for-TV films and live TV-shows, and film was very much influenced by TV. Some of these TV-films were considered so good, or so violent in the case of Siegel, that they were given a cinema release, such as The Killers (1964).

That was just the obvious ones, but there are a number of other series which also have considerable qualities and have been very influential. In addition, so far my examples have been American TV. There are many other TV-producing countries. In the 1970s British and Swedish TV was very exciting, and it continued to be so into the 1980s at least. In the 1970s for example many of Sweden's best filmmakers made TV-series and films directly for TV, including Bergman and Jan Troell.

But still, something has changed in recent years. One thing is obviously HBO (Home Box Offfice) which have managed to produce one fantastic series after another since 1998. (HBO was around before that but beginning with Oz (1997-2003) they entered into a new phase of making high-quality series). Another thing is the status of TV. In the 1980s and early 1990s TV was a place for TV-only stars, or new faces or retiring movie stars, but if you were a proper movie star you would not be in a TV-series, it was undignified. But that eventually changes so that, to take one example, in the second season of Friends (1994-2004) big movie stars were lining up for a guest part, such as Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. But that does of course not make TV better, only its hip factor higher.

I wrote a short piece on CSI in 2010:
And here is the link to my old piece on TV:

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