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From the big to small screen

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I have a question for you: When was the last time you sat down and watched a movie? The last time you watched an episode of a show? I don’t know about you, but the frequency I indulge in one is very different from the other. More broadly, I have noticed a similar trend amongst my peers with an overwhelming preference for scripted TV shows over movies. Upon further investigation, this trend appears to be systemic in the entertainment industry. From 2010 to 2020, the number of TV shows on Netflix jumped from 530 to 2,108, and in the same period, the number of movies fell from 6,755 to 3,730, according to Reelgood. So what is behind this?

A couple of factors are feeding into this change, starting with runtime. When scrolling for something to watch, staring down a 30 or 50 minute runtime is far less intimidating than an hour-and-a-half or two, even if you ultimately end up watching two or three episodes at a time. While somewhat irrational, it has been proven in various research that we favor options with less upfront cost or risk when making a decision. 

So, many industries have adopted payment plans since $10 per month is much more palatable than $120 per year even though the cost is identical. The same principle is at play here with time; consumers like the non-committal flexibility of watching a single or binge watching an entire series at once.

While the longer runtime of single installments might be hurting movies, somewhat conversely, the shorter total runtime, compared with a season TV show season, is also not boding well for them. 

A movie with around two hours is several times shorter than a season with 12 half-hour episodes. For that reason, movies are much more limited on what they can accomplish in terms of narrative. TV shows frequently have several plots going simultaneously and can tell several stories within a season. Movies simply don’t have the runtime to do this. This effect only intensifies as we look at shows with numerous seasons.

As a result of longer total runtimes, the characters in TV shows develop further and connect in more meaningful ways with the audience. A TV character can undergo numerous scenarios in their saga, which causes the audience to empathize with them more over time, which builds loyal fan bases who will keep coming back time and time again to follow the journey of their favorite characters. In most movies, the protagonist goes through one maybe two major developments, which while having the potential to be meaningful to the audience, doesn’t create the same connection found on the small screen.

Because of the loyalty TV shows can instill into their audiences, they can be much more niche in appeal. With much more view time per viewer, shows don’t need to contend with winning over broad audiences. Instead, they can focus on telling very specific nuanced stories from unique viewpoints. This creates a feedback loop resulting in more and more specifically appealing shows over time.

To put the final nail in the coffin, the gap in perceivable production value between TV shows and movies has narrowed significantly over the past 20 years, and the line between the two is blurring significantly, due to technology becoming more accessible and increases in TV show budgets. Consider the hugely popular series like “Game of Thrones,” “The Mandalorian,” or “The Crown,” which all had productions that went toe-to-toe with big-budget films. What was once a large canyon between what could be accomplished on the small versus the big screen is more of a crack now.

Personally, I am very much in favor of the shift that is happening to our entertainment. More options, deeper storylines and more viewpoints seem like something most of us would like to see or at least have access to. Movies will continue to have a place as a film medium, but undeniably, shows are where the real growth is happening. It is too early to tell what the bigger implications this will have, both in the way we stay entertained and in our culture as a whole, but we can view the future with optimism.


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