Television is on the march while cinema seems to be struggling for relevancy.

The “prestige gap” has been shrinking since the 1990s, and it’s just about entirely closed. Actors and directors no longer see television as beneath them. (Even Nicole Kidman is a TV star!)

The Academy agrees. Nearly half of this year’s Oscars went to streaming studios, which give their “movies” only a perfunctory release in the theaters. They meet the minimum requirements necessary to qualify for awards and their focus is almost entirely on viewers who will watch their films on a television.

There’s that word – “films.” Very few “films” are actually on film, and even movie theaters rarely have actual film anymore. Both movies and television shows are shot using the same technology.

The budget gap is quickly shrinking, even for blockbusters. Amazon is spending about $465 million on the first season of its Lord of the Rings television show. For comparison, Avengers: Endgame cost Disney between $350 and $400 million to make.

Shot composition used to be a major difference between television and film. When you frame a scene for an enormous 16:9 screen, you do it differently than you do for a small 4:3 screen. But the 21st Century’s large digital screens have made this difference a relic.

Television has gotten much closer to film in terms of cultural salience. The only political film of the past decade that was seen by a wide audience is Get OutMeanwhile, activists turned garb from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale into a protest symbol. Star Wars released a sequel trilogy, but its most beloved character – and best reviews – since the 80s came from a Netflix series.

The most enduring advantage film has had over television is its longevity. Television has always been better at immediacy, but movies last longer. The Wizard of OzIndiana JonesThe Sound of Music, and Marilyn Monroe are all culturally relevant in 2021. The same can’t be said of Gunsmoke or Cheers. Ask someone under 40 who shot J.R. or someone under 60 about the famous Mr. Ed. 

But this is changing. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranosand The West Wing are just a few shows that ended their runs long ago but remain part of the cultural discussion. And thanks to streaming, a whole new generation is watching Friends.

When it comes right down to it, “film” and “television” are the same medium: motion pictures with synchronized sound. They’re just in different formats.

Even that is changing. As mentioned earlier, a huge chunk of this year’s Oscars went to what were functionally what we used to call “made-for TV movies.” Episodic storytelling has come to dominate both formats. My 8-year-old son who loves Star Wars, Marvel, and How To Train Your Dragon struggles to understand the difference between a movie and a TV show. They’re all just “shows” to him.

My prediction: I don’t think “movies are dying.” But I do think they’re losing their traditional dominance of the art form. I think cinema is in the position baseball was in the mid-60s. Until then, baseball was *the* American spectator sport. But football and basketball rose to challenge it. Baseball is still very much alive — it just has to share space with other sports.

And ultimately, that’s good for everyone.

Adam Call Roberts

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