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Published October 27th 2014
The end of cinema as we know it?
Breaking Bad's Walter White, portrayed on screen by Brian Cranston
We are living in the age of the television drama. The genre's leading lights – such as Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad – now not only dominate our television sets but also our conversations, and even our social lives.
If you don't have an opinion on Walter White, or on the demise of Tony Soprano, prepare to receive the sort of social treatment previously reserved for lepers.
But where does this leave the movie industry? After all, movie ticket sales have been in steady decline ever since the heady days of the early 2000s; could television be plugging the gap?
Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott certainly thinks so. He describes cinema as "squandering the inheritance with endless sequels and video-game emulations", while top quality TV "enriches the iconography and collective lore of pop culture."
A Change in Habits
Damning words indeed, but are we really living through a golden age of televisual enterprise? At first glance, the viewing figures suggest not. When the eagerly awaited finale of Breaking Bad premiered in the U.S. on September 29th 2013, 10.25million people sat down to watch it. This is just shy of 10% off the ratings that the finale of M*A*S*H pulled in way back in 1983.
So Breaking Bad's curtain call isn't going to be bothering any all-time Top Ten lists anytime soon, but then again we live in a very different world to the one we inhabited in 1983. The TV landscape has changed to such an extent it is no longer recognizable.
The image of a family huddled around the TV set, basking collectively in its warming glow, is long past its sell-by date. In fact, mum is probably at her yoga class and will watch later via a catch-up service, and dad is going to watch half of the show live on TV and then hit the pause button and go make himself a cup of coffee. Meanwhile teenage daughter Cyndi is FaceTimeing someone on her iPad and plans to torrent the whole series to watch in one sitting. Things have changed; we just cannot judge modern television by those antiquated standards any more.
The Fall of Cinema
But it's not just our viewing habits that have changed; it's our perception of television as a whole. Once upon a time, television was seen as degenerative influence, rotting away at the minds of the younger generations; while cinema was heralded as an artform, and its stars – the Kubricks, Di Niros, Streeps and Scorseses of this world – hailed as modern Michelangelos.
As James Wolcott pointed out, it now seems that the tables have turned. Now viewers and industry figures alike have recognized the true power of television, and the vast scope that such a paradoxically small screen allows. To take just one aspect of the creative process as an example, let's look at character development – imagine how much more realized a character can become when fleshed out in 15 one-hour episodes, as opposed to a single two-hour block. It's details like this that have got everyone so excited about TV again.
Have your say: do you think TV drama will replace traditional movies? Or is this box-set business just a flash in the pan?