How come Television Studies rarely discusses the roles film plays in broadcasting? After all, in its analysis of film production and distribution in the UK in 2013, the BFI Statistical Yearbook 2014 makes clear that “In terms of viewer numbers, the single most important platform for film consumption is television”.[i] The yearbook goes on to note that in 2013 UK terrestrial television broadcast 1,990 films, while the number of films broadcast on digital television is so vast that it doesn’t give a figure; that said, the Turner Classic Movies channels and Film4 alone broadcast over 7,000 films between them in 2013.[ii] This compares to the mere 698 films that were released in UK cinemas that year,[iii] meaning that the number of films audiences could access via broadcasting in 2013 was easily more than ten times that in the cinema.
And the size of the television audiences watching films similarly dwarfs those who trek to the cinema. In 2013 there were “165.5 million cinema admissions” in the UK, while there were “3.4 billion viewings of film on television” [my italics].[iv] This means that for every person watching a film in a cinema, there were more than 20 doing the same on broadcast television. The size of audiences for individual films similarly demonstrates how the dominant mode of consumption for film is television. For example, when Up was broadcast on BBC1 in 2013 it was watched by 7.9 million people,[v] more than its UK gross of £34.59 million would suggest saw it in the cinema.[vi] And because films can be repeated on television, the audiences mount up, and can cover a long time period; this means that films a decade old such as Johnny English and Peter Pan were consumed 6.2 million and 5.9 million times in the UK in 2013, across their multiple screenings.[vii]
The significance of films to the make-up of the television experience is evident in the amount of time it takes up in scheduled broadcasting. For example, in 2013 the BBC broadcast 1,511 hours’ worth of film across its four main television channels: for BBC1 this means film (at 443 hours) constituted a larger proportion of the schedules than music and arts (55 hours), comedy (216 hours) and religion (80 hours); the BBC2 schedule was made up of film (753 hours) more than all other genres apart from factual and sport; film appears on BBC3 (221 hours) more than drama (220 hours) and current affairs (135 hours); and for BBC4 film (94 hours) is more common than entertainment (59 hours) and comedy (85 hours).[viii] That for some channels film can occupy more broadcast hours than genres typically seen as vital to British ideas of public service broadcasting – such as comedy, and music and arts – demonstrates the form’s centrality to the experience of television consumption in the UK.
The ways in which television is categorised by technology and listings magazines similarly presents film as a television genre. The weekly Radio Times,[ix] for example, has a separate film section which reviews all film screenings on terrestrial television for that week; the coverage for other genres is nowhere near as extensive, with only highlights selected for detailed reporting. National daily newspapers, in their TV listings sections, similarly often highlight films being broadcast that day, placing film as part of the economy of broadcasting. The BBC’s online catch-up service iPlayer allows you to browse its content via ‘categories’, and alongside genres such as ‘arts’ ‘entertainment’ and ‘food’, there is ‘films’. And when I look at the television guide on my PVR tabs across the top allow me to search by genres; one of these is film. By these processes television places film as a category akin to those conventionally studied as television genres, such as drama, news and documentary.
While the discussion above centres on free-to-air terrestrial television, we must also consider the volume of film subscription channels and pay TV services. The BFI Yearbook gives the example of Skyfall, which was “The top film at the UK box office in 2012 … [and] … the most popular film on pay TV channels in 2013, with a total audience of 4.9 million”.[x] This points towards the economic significance of television’s relationship with film, in both directions; that is, the important commercial value film has for television, but also the film industry’s reliance on television for its economic model. The BFI Yearbook makes clear that “the value of feature film to UK broadcasters to be approximately £1.6 billion in 2013”.[xi] But the importance of television for the film industry is even more pronounced. Two of the biggest public funders for British cinema are BBC Films and Film4, with the former investing £12.7 million in 2013, and the latter £18.1 million; this dwarfs the amount spent by, for example, Arts Council England (£4.3 million).[xii] The significance of this investment was evident in the BAFTA film awards last weekend, where the winner of the trophy for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema was BBC Films. Similarly, in the last few years, British successes at the Oscars have been with films partly-funded by Film4, such as 12 Years a Slave and Slumdog Millionaire. It is interesting to note the particularity of this cross-medium funding, whereby television invests in another cultural form in a manner not common elsewhere; I don’t see opera companies spending much money on football, for example. More than this, Channel 4’s current remit requires it “to participate in […] the making of high quality films intended to be shown to the general public at the cinema in the United Kingdom” [my italics]. That a public-service, commercial broadcaster is mandated to aim to exhibit some of its output in cinema begs the question of whether we should actually consider such texts as television rather than film, particularly as the figures above suggest more people are likely to see them when Channel 4 subsequently broadcasts them on one of their television channels.
What this all points to is that the dominant way in which audiences consume film is not in the cinema, but in the domestic environment, with the television playing a key role. That is, we live in a post-cinema age. Film is not a medium separate from television, but one whose production and consumption is reliant on the workings of television. It is clear, then, that film can productively be seen as a genre of television, albeit one which strives repeatedly to suggest that this is not the case.
But I don’t think you’d know this if you looked at the ways in which Film Studies and Television Studies commonly organise their fields of enquiry, and the relationships between them. Introductory textbooks on television rarely mention that films constitute part of the experience of the medium: film studies textbooks continue to assume the cinema experience is the dominant one and a key component of the specificity of the field. And this is despite work that argues there has been “a history of social change which has seen the home become the centre of media consumption” via technologies such as VHS and DVD.[xiii] After all, “Consumers spend more money on the DVD version of almost every movie than they do on that same movie in theaters, including blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings” (USA Today), while by 1990 “renting a picture from the local video store and watching it at home had become the most common way of consuming movies in the US”.[xiv] Film Studies continues to fetishise the cinematic experience as the locus of its study, and the ‘norm’ of consumption, despite longstanding evidence to the contrary. And, noticeably, where domestic consumption of film is acknowledged it is the history of VHS and DVD which is repeatedly focussed on, not the centrality of film to broadcasting.
The assumption that film, as something consumed via the cinema, is something textually and aesthetically apart from television perpetuates cultural hierarchies that persist between the two media. This hierarchy can be seen in the ways in which the two are compared, with television given a pat on the back when it is seen to do things which are conventionally understood as the realm of cinema. Diagnosing ‘quality’ television by its ability to be ‘cinematic’ can be found in the writings of academics, critics and bloggers. I’ve noted elsewhere my frustration at that term,[xv] partly because it is so nebulously defined, but mainly because it can only have the intended complimentary meaning if cinema is understood to be something that television can, and should, “aspire” to.[xvi] But my frustration also arises from the fact that it sometimes feels as if scholars primarily working on film have found television to be something of interest only because it is perceived to have begun doing things that allow film studies frameworks to be imported to analysis of broadcasting. The introductory sections of both Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon’s The Contemporary Television Series and Mark Jancovich and James Lyons’s Quality Popular Television [xvii] recount the editors’ realisations that (some forms) of television might be worth thinking about, in a manner that explicitly and implicitly draws on filmic discourses to validate such analysis. Tellingly, the key focii of those arguing that ‘quality’ television exists belie the narrow definition of ‘television’ being drawn on, for this is overwhelmingly analysis of television drama, ignoring the wealth of other genres that make up television. And drama – a narrative fiction – is the dominant mode of film. In some ways it is odd that the importing of film studies frameworks into the analysis of television has been adopted as a way of analysing (and evaluating) some kinds of television, when actual film, which makes up such a large part of broadcasting, has been ignored.
Without wanting to oversimplify what film studies does and has done, its primary frameworks remain ones that prioritise the cinema experiences as a dominant mode of consumption. Television studies’ frameworks, tellingly, have often responded to the idea that the place of media is key, hence the focus on the domestic nature of broadcasting, and ongoing discussions about things like the ‘gaze’ and the ‘glance’. Many university film departments publicise their resources in a manner that normalises cinema as the way in which film is consumed, bragging about screening rooms and projection equipment. And they[xviii] do all this while the statistics show the young adults they attract to their courses consume film far more often via broadcasting or portable devices than they do in the cinema. It is hard to see film studies’ insistence on foregrounding the cinema as the primary place of film consumption – despite the long-standing evidence to the contrary[xix] – as anything other than an effort to maintain a hierarchical division between television and film, and a commitment to an idea of the ‘true’, ‘proper’ or ‘best’ way to encounter film (some of which, if it tries really hard, television can ‘aspire’ to).
Yet the figures here suggest that sitting in a cinema is a minority way of accessing film. And it is not just that films are shown on television; the film industry is dependent on television for both its funding and distribution, and has been for decades. So, there’s a logical conclusion to this post-cinema context we find ourselves in, isn’t there? If the main way film is consumed is via television, then television studies should see analysis of film within broadcasting as ripe for study. But this also points to another logical conclusion: if film is but one of the genres television encompasses, shouldn’t film studies be a sub-discipline of television studies?
Brett Mills has the job title ‘Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies’, but he only really does work about telly. He is the author of Television Sitcom (BFI, 2005) and The Sitcom (EUP, 2009) and co-author of Reading Media Theory (Pearson, 2009/2012). He is currently running the 3-year AHRC-funded research project, Make Me Laugh: Creativity in the British Television Comedy Industries (www.makemelaugh.org.uk).
[i] BFI (2014) BFI Statistical Yearbook 2014, London: BFI, p138.
[ii] Ibid, p147.
[iii] Ibid, p10. This figure is for films that were released for at least a week, and the Yearbook does not give statistics for single screenings. While this no doubt means the 698 figure should be higher, it can be assumed it would still fall vastly short of the number of films television made available.
[iv] Ibid, p8.
[v] Ibid, p145.
[vi] UK Film Council (2010) UK Film Council Statistical Yearbook 2010, London: UK Film Council, p16.
[vii] BFI (2014) BFI Statistical Yearbook 2014, London: BFI, p148.
[viii] BBC (2014) BBC Annual Report and Accounts 2013/14, London: BBC, p71.
[ix] For international readers: Radio Times, despite its name, is a radio and television listings magazine.
[x] BFI (2014) BFI Statistical Yearbook 2014, London: BFI, p148.
[xi] Ibid, p150.
[xii] Ibid, p205.
[xiii] McDonald, Paul (2007) Video and DVD Industries, London: BFI, p11.
[xiv] Maltby, Richard (2003) Hollywood Cinema, 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell, p193.
[xv] Mills, Brett (2013)‘What Does It Mean to Call Television “Cinematic”?’ in Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock (eds) Television Aesthetics and Style, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, pp57-66. See also Deborah L. Jaramillo’s chapter in the same book.
[xvi] Nelson, Robin (2007) State of Play: Contemporary ‘High-End’ TV Drama, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p11.
[xvii] Hammond, Michael and Mazdon, Lucy (eds, 2005) The Contemporary Television Series, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Jancovich, Mark and Lyons, James (2003)Quality Popular Television: Cult TV, the Industry and Fans, London: British Film institute.
[xviii] I’ve deliberately written ‘they’ rather than ‘we’ here, not to suggest the institution I work for is not invested in those discourses, but simply because we don’t have those kinds of resources worth bragging about. But we’re trying to get them, tellingly.
[xix] For an example of similar arguments being made nearly 20 years ago, see Hill, John and McLoone, Martin (1996) Big Picture, Small Screen: The Relations Between Film and Television, Luton: University of Luton Press.