The small screen gets bigger

Image of Gillian Tett

This month Harvey Weinstein, the famed (and sometimes feared) Hollywood film producer and studio boss, has been on a promotional roll. No wonder. In the coming days, one of Weinstein’s new films, The Intouchables, will go on general release in the US.

As stories go, the film is undoubtedly heartwarming; it features a quadriplegic who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a black immigrant in Paris. But the film is in French, with subtitles. And while Weinstein has had some unlikely wins before (think of the silent film The Artist, which won five Oscars), it could be a challenge to persuade American audiences to watch a subtitled, arty film about physical disability. Especially when it competes with films such as Spider-Man 3, when Americans are on vacation.

But as Weinstein embarks on his trendy gamble, there is something else equally intriguing at work in the visual entertainment world. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the New York premiere of the HBO series The Newsroom, a television series based on a CNN-style newsroom. This was a glitzy, fascinating affair, full of big names in the media and arts, who duly purred with pleasure when Aaron Sorkin, the series’ creator, silkily declared that his show was intended as a “love letter” to the media world.

But what was most memorable about the event was not the actual show (which in my view was somewhat patchy), but the fact that a television series was generating so much intellectual buzz and frisson in the first place. After all, these days it is popular for pundits to decry the dumbing down of the US media in general, and television in particular. And in statistical terms, the majority of the output on American network and cable screens these days is indeed dominated by reality shows, sports, partisan news and popular films.

But what non-Americans generally do not appreciate, and what even American pundits often ignore, is that amid this allegedly dumbed-down landscape, a new genre of intelligent and creative television is flowering too. The Newsroom is one example of this (although, as I noted above, not the most inspiring offering seen this year). But other examples include Game Change (the brilliantly portrayed tale of the rise of Sarah Palin), Homeland (about security services), Veep (about the White House) and Mad Men (1960s advertising jungle). To be sure, these programmes are not necessarily highbrow – or not compared to your average trendy French art-house film.

But they are subtle, intelligent and off-beat, and they are creating a buzz. If you want to find the “cool” factor in visual entertainment today, in other words, you increasingly need to look at television – not art house movies – at least among America’s creative classes.

Why? In part, this shift reflects the changing nature of lifestyles and technology. Three decades ago, if you wanted to watch a television show you had to sit on a couch at a specific time; these days, recording devices and mobile gadgets mean that you can watch television whenever and wherever you want. Watching a “cool” series, or something that your friends consider to be cool, has thus become dramatically easier, and easier than a film.

But Weinstein himself cites another factor. As he explained to me this week in New York, on the sidelines of a TV show where he was promoting The Intouchables, “fragmentation” matters too. These days, Hollywood studios face growing pressure to produce blockbusters that will sell not just in the US, but the rest of the world too. To make commercial sense, storylines must play in Shanghai, Mumbai and São Paolo, as well as Ohio. That makes it tough for Hollywood writers to embrace subtle plots or characters, particularly in a 90-minute format; although car chases and cartoons translate across borders, irony does not. Television, however, offers enough time and space to develop more complex and thoughtful characters and stories. And precisely because technology now allows producers to tap specific target audiences, entities such as HBO are increasingly willing to target that intelligent sub-niche of viewers. They no longer feel wedded to the mainstream.

In some senses, this fragmentation is pernicious; after all, as I have noted in columns before, what is happening to television reflects a bigger pattern of social and economic polarisation. But one unexpected side benefit is that rising level of creativity in certain niches; and that means, as Dustin Hoffman told my colleague Matthew Garrahan earlier this year, many American actors and writers now think that television – not film – is the place to be. So when The Intouchables opens in New York later this month, I will certainly try to catch it (and wish Weinstein the very best in promoting his subtitled tale). But if Weinstein ever remakes the film for a US audience (as he wants to do), it will be interesting to see which format he chooses; “Hollywood” is no longer quite the Hollywood that our parents knew.

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