Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Revolution will not be televised (it'll be on catch-up)

There is a war being waged.

It has been waged since the 1950s and is largely a cold war, but, there have been many, many casualties. Both sides have gained and lost ground in this perpetual conflict and in the digital age, there are no signs of it abating. It is of course, the war for your attention and for your money. The combatants, are Cinema and Television.

They say that television is the new film; Television drama has the space to develop story arcs and complex characterisation that film simply hasn't got the time to. Plus, television drama has gradually appropriated the style and language of cinema, to the extent that many dramas, when cut down to a trailer, can easily pass as a cinema film: as a trailer, recent four-part C4 drama series Southcliffe looked great when I saw it advertised at my local Odeon multiscreen. I didn't actually watch the series, I couldn't be arsed for some reason but I would have watched the film though I reckon, had it existed

But really, the conversation about Film v TV is not as straightforward as it first appears. Because when people talk about TV being "better" than film, they're really talking about American TV; for example or the (now) Netflix . Whether you like or indeed have watched these series, you can't deny their apparent popularity but there are two "slight" differences between them and your average British drama series; size and the size of their budgets. Southcliffe, in total, is roughly three hours long. By my reckoning, Breaking Bad is 51 hours long. And without checking, I think it would be pretty safe bet that the budget of Game of Thrones is just a teeny bit higher than that of Southcliffe, or any other UK drama you care to mention. It's perhaps an extreme example, given the genre of Game of Thrones, but it's a good one to illustrate of the disparity between the UK and America in terms of cash.

And cash is, of course, what's it's all about. In America it's about making as much as you can, while in the UK it's about spending as little as you can get away with. But the rewards for American drama series can be huge because along TV audiences, come massive Boxset sales. Now, the actual audiences for Game of Thrones are much lower in the US than you might think. The cumulative transmission totals are around thirteen million but the initial, first transmission figures have often been below 5 million. Even the cumulative figure is a surprise to me (Eastenders gets broadcast figures of 6-8 million for heaven's sake!), and yes, of course, these Series sell all around the world, but it's the Boxset, at thirty nicker a pop that do the damage to your wallet and become the cash cow and focus of American companies.

Even if they sell as a Boxset, your average British drama isn't going to come close to that in cost, simply because they're not long enough, they haven't got enough episodes. The BBC's Sherlock, for example, is a series that is just three episodes long! And each episode is only 25 minutes in length! At least, that's the way it feels

Benedict Cumberbatch playing a more modern version of Sherlock than audiences are used to. Get used to it Grandad, it's the future!

No, UK drama isn't in the same league as the US but that's actually OK because it's not just about cash, it's about a return on your investment. Game of Thrones is roughly $6 million per episode, Sherlock weighs in at around EUR800,000. Bet your life HBO are gonna pump that mutha! It's elementary. But the BBC, while selling Sherlock to 180 different territories around the world, don't have the same kind of pressure. And that allows a little more space for a programme to breathe. It used to anyway.

Crime drama is pretty much the mainstay of British Television, from adaptations of Agatha Christie (which combines with that other British dramatic stalwart: Period) to and . It could be part of the reason Brits are so popular as villains in Hollywood, because anybody who's anybody in the acting world has, at some point in their career, doubtlessly killed someone on cameraBut there can be no denying the ongoing popularity of British crime with the British public, and the rest of the world. It's not all crime of course, but it is a sizeable chunk.

This illustrates not the difference with the US but the common theme: just like the fantasy of Game of Thrones and the SciFi of Battlestar Galactica, crime is a genre. Generic drama is easier to sell and easier to finance. However, recent British SciFi productions haven't fared quite as well, with the 2010 Outcasts lasting one series and the post-apocalyptic Survivors surviving (geddit?) for two (both are/were BBC). It's interesting to compare them with the more horror (and comedy) based Being Human which lasted 5 series (and has been remade in the US). I don't know if In The Flesh will return for a second series, unlike The Walking Dead, the comic franchise that's currently up to series 4 with 13 episodes per series.

The thing about crime is, it's quite cheap to make in comparison with most other genres. It's generally contemporary and generally has quite a small cast. And this is the way much of the British film industry works; smaller scale, lower budgets and higher proportionate return. Hopefully. British film doesn't have the same P&A spend as Hollywood but if you're budget's a million and a half, you don't have to spend as much as World War Z getting the word out in order to make your investors' money back. It could be argued that the British film industry can take more risks in terms of the films it makes, but, usually, it doesn't. British films are not more risquthan Hollywood films, more edgy, they're just weaker on just about every level. And this comes from someone who'd rather watch a British film than an American one 6 out of 7 days of the week.

Now, you may note the use of the word "risqu " in that last paragraph. Risquimplies some kind of sexual element. Television, over the last few years, has become not so much risquasless implicit. Its use of sex and of violence is not hinted at, it's slap bang right before your eyes, in HD. Television, unlike Film, which needs to make its money back in order (for the production executive/production company) to survive, doesn't rely on resorting to the lowest common denominator and widest audience spread i.e. Television is not infantilised in the same way Film has been. Television, after the nine O' clock watershed, is for adults, complete with sex, violence and bad language. Film, frequently, will not only edit out adult elements before the camera rolls, but will remove these elements if it can get a wider audience and make more money once the thing's been edited! Such is the impact of money on Film that it could be accused of selling its soul. Selling itself short, at the very leastOf course there are restrictions, particularly in the UK, concerning the nature of a TV drama's content but Game of Thrones, compared to the films that doubtlessly spawned its making; Lord of the Rings, is not for kids.

And this, I think, perhaps, maybe, is why TV drama in the UK (whether British made or otherwise) actually is the new film, or at least why it can be called that. The whole stylistic Nordic-creep, Gillian Anderson's character in , a heroine that was more disturbing than the killer and overall levels of angst, weirdness and nastiness that film just doesn't seem to be able to compete with, all make for a medium that offers more than a sanitised PG hour and a half in a cinema can compete with.

For me, at least, TV is currently a darker, adult refuge from the kiddy-friendly cinema of the C21st. And with younger audiences gravitating towards games and short-form internet content that probably involves watching other kids having accidents on skateboards or some form of bullying, older audiences, which I have been led to believe I number amongst, offer a much more reliable market for Television.

Cillian Murphy, cinematically astride a horse, or to pronounce it correctly, "an 'os"

Birmingham, much prized by filmmakers for its 1920s period locations

But what does the future hold in store? Current BBC drama By Any Means (Hustle but with Police instead of con-men "that's a grey area" ha ha ha ha ha ha) (ha), with it's expedited plot lines and strangely Birminghamesque looking exterior shots of London (filmed in Birmingham because of budget presumably) is sub-popcorn. I imagine it will sell abroad, but, it is crap. The heavily styled (set in 1919 Birmingham but largely filmed anywhere but, kind of understandably), starring Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill has one eye so firmly fixed on America that you can almost forgive its Birmingham accent-deaf ears (almost). And with the BBC America production of Atlantis (Merlin by another name) hitting our TV screens soon, what will become of more character driven drama outings? Will they be driven out by productions that, along with their budgets, dwarf them? Will the UCOS squad in New Tricks (a favourite with my mom and before he died, my dad) start packing heat and chasing down perps in shiny new (product placed) V8 Mustangs?

And perhaps more to the point, what will become of British film? It already struggles and strangely, Brit crime-flics don't really shine box office wise, so if TV steals the thunder Film doesn't even possess, what will become of it? Will Film become smaller, more intimate, more, dare I say it, character driven? Will it, as its relatively tiny budgets continue to shrink along with its audiences, become more kinda "arthouse"? Might it even start to become more TV-like in its approach? It's interesting because while in the US the market might dictate the content, in the UK we're slowly changing. Whether that's the TV companies driving the change, or us as consumers driving the change in our supplier, is hard to say, especially as the domestic UK market is no longer, it seems, the be all and end all of British TV executives. Will British TV drama go the way of British film; pale and generally unsuccessful imitations of US peers? British TV has always relied heavily on the quality of its acting and, its inventiveness but if it carries on along a "cinematic" path, then Doctor Who (I know it's marketed to kids) must be directly comparable with Battlestar Galactica. No matter how good the production values of the current Doctor who are compared with the pre-1989 version, it plain just doesn't rack up to the rebooted Battlestar in any way.

I don't know, I don't know, but as it stands now, in the short term and with colder nights closing in, I think I'd rather pay a licence fee than a tenner per visit to a cinema that, currently, has nothing on offer I really want to see, or at least, pay to see. Thankfully, because we are in a digital age, with things like BBC iPlayer making non-live broadcast programmes available, I don't have to do either. And that's the thing about this current stage of the war: even though the stakes are higher than they ever were, there appears to be a lot less money to wage it because if not for free, then people can get their TV and their Film for next to nothing. Yes, Television has always been at war with Film, but elephant-like fact in the room is that actually, there are no Television dramas anymore, and there are no Films either! There is only the fifth columnist, the double agent that uses and plays both sides: Content. It's a word you hear more and more. The question is, where does it come from, and how much are you willing to pay for it? It's cheap today, but really, the is the limit.

I've seen The Wire on DVD, so has anybody got Game of Thrones series II Boxset I can borrow?
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