Cultural hierarchies, through which different media forms are for various reasons given higher status, can appear fixed and unbending. But far from always. One of the themes of Newman and Levine’s Legitimating Television, on which I posted below, is the way TV has sought to claim some of the higher prestige generally accorded to film or cinema – either at the level of form or content or in what might appear to be somewhat marginal phenomena such as the increasing tendency in the 1990s for TV shows to adopt some degree of ‘letterbox’ format through the creation of noticeable black bands at the top and bottom of the screen to mimic a more cinematic shape. Such has been the success of some forms of TV (although far from all) in claiming higher-than-usual status, however, that these days it’s common parlance for journalistic accounts to suggest that TV has become ‘the place to go’ for higher quality. A piece in The Guardian slipped into this simplistic rhetoric last week, suggesting, in the context of a report about the new version of Dallas that: ‘Cable has replaced movies and networks as the destination for complicated, well-written, well-acted, well-shot dramas’.
Networks aside, is this true of ‘movies’ in general? Of course not. It’s perhaps more superficial than might be expected from The Guardian, but what’s interesting here is less the accuracy of such journalism than its status as evidence of this type of discourse when considered more broadly, something I’m thinking about these days in the context of a new project on the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood. One of the case studies I’m going to examine is The Social Network and it’s striking that one of the grounds on which ‘quality’ was ascribed to the film was the presence of Aaron Sorkin as screenwriter, bringing such credentials from his work in TV, particularly of course The West Wing. So in this case prestige in film comes at least partly from associations with the small screen. Not something that would have seemed at all usual in Hollywood in the past.