The formula for the typical television sit-com seems to consist of wide-shots, medium shots, two-shots, high-key lighting, and not a lot of visual change. However, recent series are bringing a challenge to this standard and rewriting the rules of what it’s possible to do (or spend) with a TV series. Stylistic shooting is bringing more colour, movement, and depth to the small screen, so why has the televisual become more visual?
TV shows of a similar breed do not necessarily share the same level of visual style. Take Glee (FOX, 2009 – 2015), and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, 2015 – present). Both shows are musically-focused comedies, and whilst Glee may provide more drama, the dramatic visual stylings of the latter takes the proverbial cake in terms of TV-cinematics. Both take inspiration from theatre and have different approach to the showcasing of their musical numbers. Glee tends to make use of the ‘youth-cinema’ style of fast-paced editing and rapid camera movement to incite energy into the piece, whilst Crazy Ex-Girlfriend appears to choose its moments with cinematography, using editing styles which match the specific musical performance, handheld filming for the emotional point-of-view of a character, etc. In this sense, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes arguably greater use of the lighting levels and camera movement available to a TV show to add more filmic qualities to further its storytelling as well as follow the performance; but this change in television quality of filming is not only seen in the genre of musical comedies.
Shows such as Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011 – present), a fantasy drama that has dominated international screens, have fly-kicked the bar for televisual cinematics to a whole new level. The show can be seen to highlight the newly found stylisation of modern TV, making use of aerial filming, highly elaborate sets, international location filming, and dynamic camera movement to bring the story on screen to life. Game of Thrones’ cinematic quality may come as no surprise with season 6 making use of a budget of $10 million per episode, but the money isn’t all that matters when it comes to bringing beauty and movement to the small screen. The critically-acclaimed Netflix Original, Orange is the New Black (2013 – present), spent just under $4 million per episode, and its multiple Emmy Awards speak for themselves in terms of the show’s production quality.
So, it seems that the budget is not the biggest factor when producing nationally and internationally renowned works, leading to the possibility that competition breeds quality within the industry.
The number of scripted shows going into production is increasing by the year, providing the viewers with more and more choice for their evening channel-hop/binge. As well as this, platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu bring into play the classics; old shows such as Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981 – 1991), and feel-good films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) which may not be shown – or at least shown on demand – on TV. There are those that have suggested that cable TV is now dead and that streaming services will soon be the only medium of television available, though this may not be a bad thing given the trouble many of us has encountered with our local cable company. There are already a number of ways in which users can watch TV online and via laptops and tablets and these options are only likely to grow as technology continues to develop.
The increasing visual quality of TV shows in terms of lighting, camera movement, and composition may, then, be linked to the need to stand out to viewers. With the post-cinema understanding of multiple forms of exhibition, shows must contend with not only thousands of other shows, but also with hundreds of readily-available films, which in the past would have been the favourite for a cosy night-in or family night-out.
A show which is entertaining is valuable; a show which is entertaining and beautiful is invaluable. The success of visually-stunning TV shows highlights the popularity of such impressive work, and if market competitiveness is all it takes for companies to want to make a contribution to this visual medium that is good AND good looking, let them fight on.