In my final year of university, as most students do, I was planning my dissertation. I wanted it to be a comprehensive analysis of street gangs; what they were, where they came from, their manifestation patterns in different countries, their prominence and what effective ways there were of combating and preventing them. I was asked what my inspiration was. I replied, ‘television’.
The reaction was of disappointment. It didn’t matter that it came from HBO’s ‘The Wire’, dubbed one of, if not the, greatest TV drama of all time. The fact that a tawdry medium like television, responsible for the likes of Jersey Shore and Baywatch, sparked my interest meant that I must be a pleb who spends his days moisturising bed sores while inanely seal-clapping the jokes of daytime TV presenters.
Now, I’ll be honest. I work in TV. I work for a current affairs and factual production company. I’ve been mad about television since I was conscious. I used to read through the week’s TV listings to see what was where, what new programmes there were and what I should be watching. I wanted to understand television. Yet I passionately believe that television is a medium that comfortably sits alongside other arts. In fact, I think television is now far ahead of cinema.
Let’s set aside the logical fallacy that because a medium churns out bad content it itself is somehow bad. Crime by association is no crime at all. Cinema is littered with American Pie sequels and literature is chock full of Andy McNab clones. Art features a glass of water sitting on a shelf and computer games include 50 Cent: Bulletproof. Let’s just judge TV.
TV has a reputation and it isn’t a good one. People who like it are stereotyped as being couch potatoes who must like particular forms of programming. The reality is different.
Television is a medium like no other and fills a gap, sitting friendly with its other cultural relatives. Let’s take fiction. Cinema allows a big, self-contained group of stories on related themes to be told in the space of, say, two and a half hours. When you leave a film, you have developed a degree of closeness with the characters and gone on a journey that is provocative to some degree. It’s one short, sharp hit.
Cinema tends to ‘pop’. Both stylistically and in terms of story it has to grab you. This has an impact on what or how stories can be told. You can’t develop them, really, across many instalments. Going back, if The Wire had been a film it would have missed out on a huge amount of detail. On paper, The Wire is unsuitable as a film, but is perfect for television.
Through several instalments – episodes or books – story arcs and character development can really draw in the audience, go into a level of detail film can only dream of and provide fully immersive, rich content.
Yet The Wire would also work as a book. Indeed, the format the writers were aiming for was of a good book. Each episode feels more like a ‘chapter’ than an actual episode. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking that, on first viewing, not much happens in the first episode of the series. Truth be told, The Wire would probably work quite well in written form and literature can go into an unparalleled level of detail.
So what makes television stand as a medium in its own right? Or, perhaps, is it merely in the shadow of literature?
A new example: the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series. For those unaware, Battlestar Galactica is the story of a populous whose planet is destroyed by their own creations. Just thousands of the entire species remaining, they set off in search of a new home, pursued by those responsible for their old home’s destruction.
The series is a reimagining of a 1970s series of the same name. It deals with politics, morality, international relations and more. It is a tremendous achievement. Action, drama, tragedy, epic, saga, thriller – you can use any of these words to describe the series. It is thunderously good. Yet would the experience related to it be as visceral if it were a book?
Through not just writing, but via editing, cinematography, the score, direction, acting and design the experience afforded through television matches that of cinema with the added bonus of intricate, rich story arcs and deep character development. The emotion felt is underlined and intensified through all the tricks TV (and film) offers.
This is not in any way to diminish any medium or suggest a hierarchy of media, but to say that television can sit in its own right, out of another form’s shadow. Some content is more suited to one form than another – film, book, TV show etc.
Television, however, is an easily digestible medium. It appeals and is watched by a huge amount of people. It’s mainstream. Not just the medium, though, but also the content. It would be easy to slam this, as the reason awful content is produced, but again every medium has a wealth of dross. And because something is accessible, are we really suggesting that in some way diminishes TV? In my opinion, it’s one of TV’s greatest strengths. Superb fiction is made on TV, but this mainstream nature also is of profound importance in factual television.
Let’s just look at one element of factual television, ignoring property, cookery, travel shows and such, though these can also have good value, and instead focus on documentaries.
While some issues make good non-fiction books, films or articles, TV offers something very different to important stories through its accessibility as a medium. In the UK, the financial abuses of the British National Party exposed by the BBC’s Panorama programme or the physical abuses of school children in London uncovered by Channel 4’s Dispatches would not have been big enough for a film and though they would have made a splash in print the response from having it televised was far bigger.
Television allows important issues to be explored and exposed to a mass audience. It provides a public service that bolsters democracy by educating the electorate more effective than print because of TV’s bigger audience figures; figures bigger because of the nature of television as a medium.
In both factual and fiction TV serves a unique purpose that offers superb content and an incredible experience. Whilst it’s true that there is a lot of bad content in television this is true across all media.
Programmes like The West Wing, Star Trek, The Wire, Sherlock, Mad Men, Father Ted and The Thick of It are just a small batch of the incredible content that TV affords. These are programmes that have entered our consciousness, attached us to truly memorable characters, moved us, provoked us and enthralled us. They have affected the public consciousness and enriched our culture. Good television can easily stand up with great content from any other media and should receive the respect it deserves. I was interested in gangs because of some of the best fiction in the world, and that fiction was a television show.