How TV and Movies switched roles

Edward Jay Epstein offers an explanation as to how TV become elite entertainment while movies became mass entertainment. What's interesting is that he attributes most of the switch to structural conditions and not creative choices.

This role reversal, rather than a momentary fluke, proceeds directly from the new economic realities of the entertainment business.

Consider what happened to Pay-TV. When HBO , now a subsidiary of Time Warner, initially signing up monthly subscribers in the 1960s, it provided the only way home viewers could see movies uninterrupted by commercials, and it (and Cinemax unit) eventually signed up through their local cable systems 40 million subscribers. HBO gets a fixed a fee– about $4.5 per month– for each subscriber, no matter how little or often they watch HBO. To continue to harvest this immense bounty, HBO has to perform a single feat: stop subscribers from ending their service. But since nowadays its subscribers can get movies cheaper and fast from other sources, such as Netflix, retail stores and the Internet, HBO needs a more exclusive inducement to keep them. And so, beginning in the 1990s, it began putting more and more resources into creating its own original programing that would appeal to the head of the house. Not restricted by the need to maximize the audience (it has no advertising), ratings boards (it has no censorship) or non-English speaking markets, it was able to create edgy character-driven edgy series such as Sex and the City, not only succeeded in retaining their subscribers but achieved surprising acclaim in the media. Other pay-channels followed suit. So did other networks so as not lose market share. The result is the elevation of television, or at least some tiers of it, to a medium of entertainment for the elite.

The descent of movies into mass entertainment, a glut of franchises, remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations, is less mysterious given the rise of the multiplex and its dependence on brute force marketing and the need to create a differentiated experience versus the home theater DVD rental alternative.

The rise of TV as an outlet for elite entertainment is a bit more surprising to me. The ability to write for grown-ups on ad-free channels is certainly an attractive outlet, though it took some time for those channels to gain the scale to finance productions on the level of Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire, all of which had feature film size budgets. What also fascinates me, though, is the rise of cable as an outlet for serial dramas. A show like The Wire is perhaps the epitome of a type of entertainment that seems entirely impossible prior to the existence of HBO. No broadcast network could have aired that, and even if they had, it's difficult to imagine any broadcast network keeping it on air with its ratings as low as they were during its run on HBO.

The multi-season, multi-story-arc serial drama is a fairly new archetype in the TV world, and cable seems to be the best place creative people can paint on that broad a canvas. It's not just that I'm older, but a night in with a few episodes off of my DVR feels like a huge favorite versus a night out at the movies nine times out of ten these days because cable is where the most ambitious storytelling has migrated.