Television Programs Go to the Movies: Crossing Boundaries in Exhibition Spaces

One of the most fundamental distinctions levied between television and cinema centers around the place in which we experience each medium. To many, our sense of what these media are depends significantly upon the technological means of content delivery and the site to which that content is being delivered. The cinema, in particular, has often been defined with a rather singular focus on the site of theatrical exhibition with its projected images and sounds. Even as mechanical projection of film canisters that physically travel the globe has given way to digital projection of films sent from distributors’ servers, the theater persists as the cinematic sin qua non. Of course, the content we recognize as film circulates beyond those spaces, too, moving through a number of release windows across television, home video, and online streaming. And yet theatrical exhibition enjoys a pride of place in this sequence, as the primary and initializing moment of that distribution chain. No example makes this clearer than the Oscars, the awards granted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of outstanding achievement in the medium. To win this ultimate validation of cinematic achievement, one’s work must be intended for theatrical exhibition. By contrast to this insistence on public exhibition, television has been significantly understood by reference to the domestic and individualized settings of its private consumption. Television devices have certainly changed—from set-top boxes that receive signals from antenna or cable to laptops and phones that stream content from the internet—but even when taken out of the space of the family room, the “mobile privatization” of television (Williams 2003/1974) creates a sense of viewing while being at home in a comfortable space to which viewers are individually attached (Maly-Bowie 2019). Where we watch seems to matter a great deal to a great many, and our sense of what we watch is often shaped by that sense of where we are.

However, rather than reinforce this perception of fundamental differences, this chapter seeks to interrogate it, denaturalizing the discourses that suggest that cinema and television have essential characters defined by their context of exhibition. To do so, it explores some of the instances in which television has been exhibited as cinema as well as, by contrast, cases in which cinema has been brought into the realm of the television. Through that effort, it will become clear that neither television nor film can be understood in isolation from one another by a distinction based in location: instead, these media frequently overlap in their exhibition and consumption. Just as movies can come home on television, home video, or Netflix, television can literally go to the movies as programs are slated for theatrical exhibition as part of industry experiments in making these media work together. On the one hand, then, the presence of television in the spaces of theatrical exhibition reveals that place-centric definitions of media essence are tenuously constructed and problematic in that construction. On the other hand, the persistence of these definitions as part of the production of value and prestige in each medium demonstrates the continued power of these ideas as well as the need for them to be confronted and better understood in media theory. So when television programs go to the movies, we have an opportunity to reflect on the way in which media industries and media cultures push against the very boundaries often deployed to define and limit them.

In an age of media convergence (Jenkins 2006) in which the boundaries between media are regularly rendered blurry, there are no shortages of examples in which “film” content is distributed and viewed via television, and in which “television” content manifests in cinematic forms. The history of film distribution in the second half of the 20th century and beyond has turned centrally on its relationship to television industries, as studios and networks weighed their competing and collaborative interests (Hilmes 1990), content came to be valued for its cross-promotional functions (Anderson 1994; Wasko 2001), distribution strategies increasingly accounted for ancillary markets (Balio 1990), and film libraries could be resold across media lines (Hoyt 2015; Kompare 2005). Somewhat less prominent, however, has been attention to the ways in which the history of television has been shaped by its ability to serve as cinema. Perhaps most notably, Michael Newman and Elana Levine (2011) interrogate the way in which the increasing legitimation of television in the 21st century has depended in significant part on its identification as a “cinematic” medium that eschews the look, feel, and taste cultures of so much broadcast history. Newman and Levine reveal television as a medium constructed in significant part by reference to its overlap with the cinema—the partial nature of which prompts important political questions about what cultures, which viewers, and whose tastes are and are not perceived to have value in the hierarchies into which media like film and television can be placed. Building on this interrogation of the politics of television’s convergence with film, this chapter moves beyond the question of how television is described as cinematic to explore how television is exhibited as cinema. In doing so, it reveals productive linkages between film historians’ interest in the contexts of distribution and exhibition with the perspectives of television scholars focused on the meanings, values, and assumptions that undergird the convergence of media.

To these ends, the chapter first unpacks recent industry strategies in which television programming has been reallocated and transformed for exhibition in theatrical venues. By developing a deeper understanding of the industrial strategies behind the theatrical exhibition of cult hits like Star Trek: The Next-Generation (1987-1994) or Game of Thrones (2010-2019), we can understand what television is deemed worthy and viable of going to the movies, and by extension, what television remains decidedly more difficult to bring to the cinema. This analysis can reveal how and why television industries look to the cinema as an exhibition partner, as well as why cinema operators would look to television to diversify their offerings to patrons.

Second, this chapter will consider the ways in which television’s capacity to go to the movies is imagined within the frameworks of national film cultures, and how investment in the difference between cinema and television in one local context need not extend to another. Some television series that have not appeared on the cinema screen in the US context, for example, have transformed into cinematic fare far more freely when traded on the international marketplace. By looking at the ways in which US television programs find abroad the theatrical exhibition that is denied them in their domestic market, the chapter reveals that the lines between cinema and television are not essential characteristics of the medium, but instead culturally specific constructions. In fact, when failed US television program Battlestar Galáctica (1978-1980) found exhibition as cinema throughout the globe, these industry practices proved quite revealing: first, they showed that definitions of the cinema based in theatrical exhibition may not be universal throughout the globe; second, they demonstrated that hierarchies of value between media are not essential and vary with values, tastes, and assumptions articulated to different populations.

Finally, while the history of film exhibited on television is far too complex to attend to in any real depth, this chapter will look to an extreme example of film’s reliance on television exhibition as a limit case. In the wake of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, industrial models that treat the public space of theatrical exhibition as a cornerstone were shaken to the core. While the move to theatrical exhibition used to be a calculus of the value accrued to television programming, during the pandemic content produced for the cinema migrated to Netflix, video-on-demand, and other digital television platforms to mitigate the lost value of theatrical release. Strategies that turned on theatrical release were rethought, or at the very least suspended indefinitely, and in that context television emerged as a platform in which the potential failure of film projects might be recalculated. Moreover, when going to the movies lost its appeal, the crisis the pandemic created for the film industry invites us to reconsider television’s potential to be exhibited theatrically, too. In short, this disruption of the distributional hierarchies and cultures of exhibition in film and television reveals the contingent and fragile nature of any essential boundaries between media—even as media institutions quickly seek to repair those walls. Ultimately, what all these case studies reveal is the way in which media industries construct the boundaries in which they operate through the very strategies and practices with which they operate. Yet that process also undoes these boundaries, both through concerted efforts to welcome television into the spaces of film exhibition, and in crises of disruption that present television as a potential alternative to film exhibition.

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