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Why Television is greater than Movies!

When preparing for this week’s Digital Production BuZZ  (March 21) Larry Jordan emailed a little ahead of the interview on Funding Television production. Larry wanted to expand the subject to funding films, but I argued that I wanted to keep the attention on Television, because I believe that Television is greater than Movies.

I’ll acknowledge that working on a movie – at least in theory – allows you to pay even more attention to detail, and to spend much more time with camera and cast choreography. An edit that gets six months is going to be more polished than one that has had six weeks at most.

All that said, and agreed, I still believe that Television is greater than Movies simply because how how much is produced and the quality that it is produced with. But first, Larry’s challenging question: What is Television?

That’s a great question and one that was much easier to answer 20 years ago. Then Television was what was broadcast over the limited radio spectrum devoted to Television. There were limited licenses available and the tendency was for three major networks (and then four) to dominate, with affiliates and low budget independents forming the majority of the market.

Funding was simple: the network that was going to distribute funded the project, or produced it directly (with limitations).

But that is no longer a reasonable definition of Television. I tend to go for the “duck test”: if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If the programming I’m watching has the quality of script and production that is indistinguishable from the quality that has previously been broadcast, the I’ll call it Television, whether it comes from a major network, over a cable channel, or delivered over the Internet. Netflix’s House of Cards is every bit Television as is Dancing with the Stars.

In fact we’ve seen a huge trend for the most innovative programming to devolve away from the networks to cable channels like AMC and Starz; or to “new” players like Netflix, Amazon Studios and YouTube. The networks, because of their need to aggregate large numbers, are limited to Sports and Reality programming (largely).

But why do I believe that Television is greater than Movies? Because Television has to do so much more, with so much less, in much less time. That this is achieved on a fraction of the budget of a major film, but with 80% of the quality makes it impressive.

Television has always been more budget (therefore time) constrained than Movie, so it’s Television that moves first to new, faster technologies and workflows because of their budget pressure. But another major shift sees little difference in the technology of Movies or Television. The same cameras, lighting gear, sound gear, NLEs and color grading tools are being used for both.

Effects work for Television is on a par with that of film, and resolution is just a render setting! Look at Stargate Studios reel and there’s no difference to the location faking and set extension work being done in Television and Movies (other than it’s typical to use blue for analog film acquisition, and green for electronic).

All this is being done for a fraction of the budget of a typical movie. While a studio tentpole movie is going to be upward of $120 million, if we factor in the numerous small releases – far more similar to Television than the grand Movie – and the average budget is a around $40 million. I’ve put “Made for TV” movies into the TV category in my mind, because they usually have Television-like budget constraints.

One hour drama series generally run at around $3-4 million an episode, while budget series like Mad Men is reported to have a $2 million per episode budget. Picking $3 million as the average, 40 minutes for a TV hour and 120 minutes for a Movie, then 120 minutes of Television costs $9 million. That’s a moderately generous movie-of-the-week budget but nothing for a cinema release.

I also like Television because there’s a lot longer engagement with the characters. In a Movie we see the character for that visit, and then years later with the sequel, or a decade later with the remake. For Television we typically get 23 visits per year or 7.5 times more than spent with the movie. And then the following year, we get another 920 minutes with the characters. And another 920 the year after before even getting to the first sequel.

The one area where this type of production schedule can compromise is in script. Film scripts get finely honed, either to get them right, or to reduce them to the most common of denominators.  Television chews up stories very fast. I even hypothesize that Television is more about character while Movie is about the story.

Involvement is much greater for audiences in Television; production is more efficient and where early adoption of technologies tend to happen; and Television employes many more people that film. That’s why I think Television is greater than Movies.

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  • Zak Ray · March 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Careful Philip… I agree television is better suited to some types of storytelling, and your hypothesis of TV allowing for deeper character arcs while film is more geared to story has some merit, but it’s a dangerous game to declare any medium outright “better” than another. How much content can be produced for how little time or money is admirable to be sure, but hardly a factor in whether or not it’s “better”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think film and TV should be treated equally, and “The Wire” is right up there with “Citizen Kane” in my book. But I don’t know or care what the budget of either was, how long it took to make, or any other circumstance surrounding it’s production.

    • Philip Hodgetts · March 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

      I certainly don’t disagree, but I’m considering both the business and creative aspects, and as a business, Television is more productive and efficient with the same level of “hit or miss” with story that also happens in film.

      • Zak Ray · March 20, 2013 at 11:15 am

        I figured as much, that’s why I said be careful 🙂 You gotta watch out for people like me who jump to conclusions defending film’s honor!

  • Tim Johnston · April 3, 2013 at 6:04 am

    Fun thesis Philip, thanks for the great read!



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