Saturday, March 5, 2016

Film to Television

Changing tastes based on social media behavior

This was Oscar week. Leo finally won. Most of the skits referenced the absence of any African-American nominees in major categories by being all about African-Americans. There was a big emphasis on not asking ladies who they were wearing, though as Chris Rock mentioned in his monologue maybe guys would be asked the question too if they weren't all wearing the same thing. There was a Girl Scout cookie feature.

In recent years I've watched the Oscars with more and more detachment. I still see the show every year out of tradition, having done it ever since I was a kid. But the habit has moved from being a huge family practice to one of more detached monitoring.

We were a huge movie family, a passion passed down to us from our father. We were schooled in all the necessary trilogies, many of the classics, a lot of musicals and a healthy dose of Disney. Even when I was too young to see the nominated movies, my older sister followed industry news and I caught the bug. We knew the actors, directors and films nomintaed every year. For a long time I watched the ceremony looking forward mostly to seeing how the year's Disney offering would be represented, usually a major variety number, and one year with extra pride as it featured our very own Lea Salonga. On Oscar mornings (because of the time difference) we would all gather to watch the red carpet interviews and then track the winners. One of dad's best gifts was a movie journal which included a listing of all the historical top category Oscar winners, with spaces for upcoming years. Every year I would diligently fill in the blanks as awards were given out. We even started printing out the New York Times Oscar ballots as a family challenge. (I was terrible at picking winners.)

Over the years however our interest in film has waned and television programs have become a bigger passion point. We all still watch movies, but starting with the (pirated) DVD revolution going to the cinema became less appealing and was suddenly saved for major blockbusters. We started joking with a way to review movies by deciding if they were worth going to the theater for, "pang DVD lang" ("DVD at home will do"), or worse, "pang treadmill". Huge movies still get me excited - Avatar was one of the most captivating theater experiences I've had in recent-ish years. The family waited for me to come home last year from Singapore so we could all watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens together.

But when we Skype on Sunday nights, what always comes up are updates on what TV we've been watching. I have a few programs in common with my sibilngs and parents, and those are always hot topics. Recent debates in our family have included whether you're on Team Mama Pope or on Team Papa Pope, which house you fall under whether Stark, Targaryan, Lannister, or worst of all Greyjoy, etc. When Heroes was new and still good out my sister, brother and I would crowd around the computer together to see the latest episodes. We watched quite a few seasons of Top Chef that way also. There was one weekend where my younger sister and I, who shared a room and TV at the time, watched The OC all night until three or four in the morning, went to bed, and resumed the season as soon as we woke up and all throughout the day. She and I have also done this thing where we "trade" TV pilots to try and get the other person watching a favorite show. I succeeded in hitching her to Mad Men, while I didn't take as well to her offering (Band of Brothers). Reacting to major TV moments and trading recommendations continues to be a running thread on our family Whatsapp.

After I moved away from home I became a 100% cord cutter relying on streaming and digital options completely, and becoming my own content programmer. That habit continues to this day. I follow maybe 20+ shows at a time, with varying degrees of attentiveness. Some shows like Mad Men are watched strictly mobile-free, while other programs are on while I monitor e-mail and Facebook, cook, clean, etc.

Even among wider social circles, in person and on social media, TV watercooler moments seem to have become the buzzier topic than film. I'm looking for stats to validate this. But even by virtue of the number of hours in a given TV season, and the length of time a season runs, compared to the 90-120 movie minutes, there is more to react to on TV. I still watch movies, but I would give up movies forever over TV, any day.

Outside of my own personal behavior, I can't validate for sure that TV has overtaken film. It certainly isn't an apples-to-apples situation. But the preoccupation with television has grown for sure. It is now a strong writers medium, and attracts even movie talent, while catapulting fresh new faces to fame, whereas TV used to feel like the poor man's silver screen. I remember, going back to when I was a kid watching award shows, the Golden Globes seemed like such an awkward ceremony becuase the TV actors were just so clearly on a lower fame and cultural acceptance level compared to the movie stars. But watching the Globes now, I cheer even more for the TV categories than for the film ones.

I plan to look in to this, but it seems plausible that we can use some of the new behaviors created by new social and digital habits that have impacted the preference for television.

  • Through the social media feed, audiences have been taught to consume more content, in smaller chunks. Although digital takes "byte-size" to a new extreme, with Vine videos for example now down to six seconds, this theme fits with television versus film. TV is cut into episodes that build the story over time, instead of investing in one single longer-form piece of content.
  • Social has also taught us to express and appreciate a depth of personality. Digital celebrities have built their fame on their personas, while today's actors and actresses, even musicians and models, are forced to show theirs through personal content feeds. Films have still been able to create iconic characters, but nowhere near the same way that television characters are not just established but tested against so many different situations. I'm sure there are arguments that TV's episodic nature doesn't necessarily lead to more character depth, but if I think about the evolution of someone like Walter on Fringe, Tyrion on Game of Thornes, even Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, there is potentially more to a character when there are more hours of potential screen time to get to know - and become attached to - them.
  • Not just social but the whole digital space is catered to exploring and going deeper in to our passion areas. Whether you're intersted in knitting, citizen science, sous vide recipes, YouTube musicals, or almost literally whatever, you can find communities and spaces online to explore and express those interest areas. TV plays on this by potentially adding complexity with every episode. It's always a case-to-case basis - there are crap shows just as there are crap films. But based on the medium potenial, this is better achieved with TV. 

I still enjoy movies and haven't given up on film, that isn't the point. (As I write this I'm listening to my Movie Themes playlist which features scores from Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Little Women, Mighty Ducks... more of my chidlhood favorites that make anything feel epic.) But it is interesting to note how alive the medium has become and how our tastes and preferences are evolving in a way that I think is more affected by our growing exposure to social and digital media. As these habits evolve, it will be intersting to see any the new dimensions and levels of craft in television, but also whether, as we leave the confines of the programming schedule and even potentially geographic boundaries of IP contracts, what new channels and formats will be created.



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