Movies · TV

The Awards-Powered Illusion of Television Being Better Than Movies

By  · Published on September 19th, 2016

How the Emmys and the Oscars help fuel a futile debate.

As the Emmy Awards were honoring the best in television last night, the misguided claim that TV rules and movies suck lately was all too easily spouted on social media, eliciting equal parts agreement and dissent from the various peanut galleries (roasted on one side, boiled on the other).

After such a sad summer at the multiplex for mainstream fare, the Emmys come at just the right time for TV champions to celebrate the small screen as having the better content, but it’s also the start of fall festival and awards season buzz, when we’re hearing that great movies are around the corner.

Of course, right this moment, we don’t all know for sure ourselves that Lion and La La Land and Jackie and Moonlight and even genre flicks like Arrival and A Monster Calls will satisfy as much as Master of None, Grease: Live, Veep, Transparent, Game of Thrones, and The People v. O.J. Simpson.

There are many ways in which TV and movies are different animals, almost unworthy of comparison in spite of their visual medium commonality. One worth considering, though, particularly for the conversation about which is better is how their major academy kudos are so dissimilar in their approach.

That is to say the TV academy and the film academy treat their respective mediums so disparately, and then the entertainment press— particularly awards bloggers – treats the separate awards as if they’re not both just likeminded ceremonies where Hollywood elite pat themselves on the back.

For the former, we mostly see the difference in how many more awards the Emmys have compared to the Oscars, and how they give as much attention to comedy as drama, not to mention all their nonfiction honors. They’re able to celebrate a wider variety of quality, not necessarily greater quality.

As for the latter, consider the buildup to each awards ceremony. With the Emmys, buzz comes as the general audience is consuming the TV shows that will wind up with nominations. With the Oscars, buzz begins with a smaller group of people and lasts that way for months, and many contenders aren’t even available to a wide audience before the nominees are announced.

The difference between the public getting to authoritatively be a part of the ongoing discourse of television versus standing at a distance as only critics and festival-goers hype movies (and then overhype, spark a backlash, revive favor, etc.) is substantial to our ability to appreciate one over the other.

Please Stop Comparing Movies to Television

Following the ceremonies, different attitudes are on display, as well. The morning after the Emmys, fans of TV are excited about the winners and look forward to continuing the viewing and discussion of many of the programs. After the Oscars, everyone just complains about what won or lost.

And then they just stop talking about those nominees and winners within a year’s time (where’s all the talk of Spotlight lately, huh?). It’s not just because TV shows go on. Not all do. We still talk about Mad Men and Breaking Bad more than we talk about 12 Years a Slave and Birdman.

Why? One reason might be that we invested much more of our time watching and celebrating those series, whereas we maybe saw each of the last five Best Picture winners one time just before or just after their big moment. And then we easily let go of them quickly.

One could argue the Emmy nominees better represent the best of TV than the Oscar nominees do for film. Even though Emmy voters, especially in the last couple years, have been rather populist in their choices, these more-mainstream picks, which still aren’t the highest-rated, are well-made shows.

Oscar voters, on the other hand, vote safer and blander every year, to where their nominations are neither the general audience’s favorites nor the most acclaimed by critics but somewhere in the middle. Mostly they’re selections of the industry, campaigned for longer than they spend in theaters.

That’s an issue for movies in general, though, and contributes to what causes people to declare movies are dead or at least just suck right now. They exist in our minds so long before they actually exist that our reaction following all that anticipation is more susceptible to disappointment.

Look at how this summer’s biggest movies failed to meet expectations, while the most talked about entertainment was a Netflix series that few of us had heard about before it was dropped in full on its release date. It’s not just because we could sit at home and binge cheaply. Word of mouth was very swift, but it’s also lasted, and the sense of discovery everyone has felt is key.

Whether you think it’s overrated or not, isn’t it much more delightful seeing how huge Stranger Things became after it arrived as opposed to following how huge something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (or Captain America: Civil War to not choose sides or profit margins) is prior to opening?

And Stranger Things isn’t even that exceptional and likely won’t be a major player at next year’s Emmys (I said major). As far as nostalgic entertainment goes, it might not even be any better really than Ghostbusters, but it’s able to be a special sort of phenomenon that a big tentpole movie can never be.

Will Serial TV Shows Be The Best “Movies” of the Next Few Years?

Back to what is in fact great in either medium, the best films of the year and the best series of the year are not often going to be the most popular in their respective formats anyway, but there’s just definitely going to be larger audiences for the better TV shows, meaning more critics can write more about them because readers will read them, and the buzz will churn stronger for those critical darlings than anything hitting the big screen.

There’s a lot of bad and mediocre television that isn’t written about as much as the great television, and there’s a lot of extraordinary cinema that isn’t written about as much as the mainstream movies, which can often be awful. Many elements are in play from the various industries and audiences involved.

Unfortunately, that means the illusion of TV being better than movies right now is a systemic issue, and it may never be fixed at this point. But it’s almost as easy for complainers and ignorant consumers to at least become aware of potentially better movies out there than to just spit from the gut.

It’s not cinema that’s dead, it’s diligence.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.