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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C

Column How we lost our shame of being glued to the TV

The small screen, once home to has-been actors and low-budget dross, has been revolutionised, writes Dave Winterlich.

REMEMBER WHEN YOU felt embarrassed to admit watching TV; when you admired those who boldly bragged “oh I never watch TV at all” as you uncomfortably mumbled “yeah, me neither” in utter disgust and shame. And you were right to be ashamed.

OK, there were ephemeral blips, but by and large TV was the retirement home for has-been actors, comfortably out to pasture as their careers faded into the distance. Or TV was the paddling pool, the training ground to see if actors could really cut it or not – the making of the George Clooneys and Bruce Willises of the world.

Channels were crammed with low-budget, mind-numbing entertainment dross, Z-listers drenched in gunge and low quality quiz shows. But cinema – cinema was a different story. Cinema was the thinking man’s pleasure, second to only theatre or reading. Cinema was the showcase medium, the audio visual snob.

But those days are gone. We are living in a golden age of television content. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Love/Hate, Game Of Thrones, Homeland, True Detective and House of Cards, to name but a few.

true-detective-harrelson-mcconaughey-610x348 HBO True Detective has brought McConaughey and Harrelson's big screen firepower to the small screen (or in Woody's case, back there). HBO

Cinema has ironically now become the mind-numbing, comic book style entertainment for the masses as studios lazily roll out sequel after prequel after sequel. The public gets what the public wants and remakes and blockbuster franchises are very much in fashion. Special effects and 3D gimmicks have replaced plots, writing and acting. Of course, there are still some great movies but these are typically few and far between and, worryingly, usually perform poorly at the box office.

In contrast to cinema, the television studios such as HBO and Showtime are producing amazing content, attracting the best writing and acting talent and leaving the film studios wondering where it all went wrong. Audiences are growing too. Nielsen figures show that Irish adults are watching 219 minutes of TV daily in 2014, compared to 208 minutes in 2013.

TV audiences growing

You may have thought that TV was in decline but, in fact, we’re watching more than ever. In 2010 we watched 207 minutes daily and only 189 minutes in 2005. By contrast, Irish box office cinema admissions were down 6% in 2012 and a further 5% in 2013.

TV viewers can stand at the watercooler again with pride, hold their heads high and take the high ground because if you don’t watch TV these days, you’re missing out – although it’s still cooler to say you don’t actually watch these shows on TV.

Not since the days of “Who Shot JR?” have we been so engrossed in the small screen. There is no doubt that big screen actors bring a certain amount of star quality to the small screen but historically big name Hollywood stars only showed up in cameo roles, a novelty value, rolled out as a PR ratings winner like Brad Pitt in Friends so many years ago.

bradpitt gif Brad Pitt in Friends - remember that?

Following on from Matthew McConaughey’s brilliant performance in True Detective it is widely rumoured that Brad Pitt will feature in Season 2, not as a cameo but as the main star. Global audiences and new content distribution platforms mean TV studios now have truly global audiences, and they can in turn invest in higher quality programming. You only need to watch an episode of Game of Thrones in HD to really appreciate the production values of today’s television.

And TV studios are treating their product like movie releases. HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 4 was simulcast on Sky Atlantic in the UK & Ireland at 2am to coincide with the US premiere. In the US, it attracted HBO’s biggest audience since The Sopranos’ finale in 2007 with 6.6 million for the initial 9pm transmission and another 1.6 million for an 11pm repeat. In the year 2012, over 160 baby girls in the US were legally named “Khaleesi” after the character in the show even though it is not the character’s name in the show (it is Daenerys if you want to know) but merely a title, meaning “Queen”, a title in a totally made up language. It seems HBO continue to be masters in finding the world’s entertainment g-spot.

What makes TV gold?

But it’s not just the acting or production values where TV studios are winning; it’s the quality of writers. Yes, we have always had some great TV, whether it was The Sopranos, The West Wing or The Wire, but the viewer today is spoiled for choice when it comes to quality programming. Maybe True Detective was a little self-indulgent and took itself a little too seriously at times but for the first few episodes it was clear that TV, as we knew it, had changed.

TV today is very different. House of Cards is another “television” masterpiece. The writing, the cinematography and Kevin Spacey’s brilliant portrayal of Frank Underwood, it is engrossing entertainment. Yes, the show is based on a BBC UK show from 1990 (which was critically acclaimed) but when David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network, Seven, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) applied his Midas touch to an already brilliant script and adapted it for US audiences, it turned to TV gold (well “internet” gold).

So for now, it looks like we’ll be sitting back, turning on the TV and enjoying the best of today’s writing, acting and production – all from the comfort of our own room.

Dave Winterlich is head of strategy at Carat Ireland, Dentsu Aegis Network and currently obsessed with Modern Family.

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