Why TV has become more culturally significant than film

(This is a piece I wrote some time ago)

In a recent interview Steven Soderbergh observed that movies may no longer be as culturally significant as television. Lots of people have commented on this, using shows like Breaking Bad and Mad men as examples of how television can cater to a much longer, more involved narrative capable of greater nuance. There’s some truth in that thinking but it also misses a larger point.

Culture helps shape our view of the world and our shared experience of it connects us to other people. Television requires a greater commitment from the viewer than a movie and so says more about us: just because someone you meet at a party broadly shares your enthusiasm for Jaws or The Godfather or The Matrix it doesn’t necessarily mean you have that much in common with them. I like Taxi Driver, so did John Hinckley; I don’t think we’d have been friends.

The commitment required from television, however, speaks of broader common ground. If we both loved Friday Night Lights, it means we have both devoted roughly 55 HOURS of our lives to watching the show. To have lasted out that commitment we surely have similar tastes in character, narrative and theme and we likely share the same overall sense of morality that forms the show’s foundation.

If we both loved a show like that, we probably have other things in common. At the very least, we now have a solid, secure base from which to explore other areas of shared experience.

Netflix, iTunes and the box set have made watching television a much more active endeavour than it was when it was broadcast-only. As a result, television drama is now a more powerful medium than it ever has been and the shared commitment to bingeing on episodes and hoovering up whole extended narratives has strengthened the cultural significance of TV over film.

Anyway, get back to work…

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