2014 / Sunday

All Eyes on Small Screen versus The Novel

Richard Brandt

Is this the golden age of television? Citing the hit series Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and True Detective, David Knox, television commentator and editor of industry site tvtonight, seems to think so.

“I think the term golden age is relative. Television success peaks, then plateaus and declines before heading back up again. There will always be another golden age,” said Peter Duncan, co-creator, screenwriter and producer of the acclaimed ABC legal drama Rake.

“But there’s no doubt television is currently doing well.”

The panel discussion, Exceptional Television, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival was led by Mr Knox and included Mr Duncan alongside writer and director Steven McGregor, best known for his work on ABC drama series Redfern Now, and American writer A.M. Homes, whose latest novel May We Be Forgiven won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.



The discussion focused on whether quality television series have taken over from film and are comparable to the novel as the best way to communicate ideas. The panel explored how storytelling, rich character development and technology are drivers of the success of contemporary television.

“I think broadcasters are now respecting the audience more. We’re seeing better told stories with better characters and overall, I think we’re making better stuff,” Mr McGregor said. “We were encouraged to push the boundaries [in Redfern Now] and tell stories that were a bit touchy and I think people responded to that.”

Ms Homes attributed much of television’s recent success to the variety of media platforms available to viewers and the opportunities this presents networks when selecting which programs to make.

“People are now watching television when it’s broadcast, they’re recording it or watching it on the web via mediums like Netflix [online streaming service]. We now have an enormous variety of delivery platforms,” she said. “I now follow television how I want to follow it. In the past network television had to meet the needs of millions of people at once. Now shows can specialise and still be successful.”

Mr Knox suggested that the cost of attending cinemas – ticket prices, travel to and from the cinema and perhaps extra costs like babysitters – has forced families to turn to television as a cheaper entertainment alternative. Mr Duncan agreed this has helped fuel television’s recent success: “There has been a power shift in the industry where television has become more like cinema. As an example, Netflix is $6.95 per month. I just watched the whole two seasons of House of Cards in two and a half days on Netflix. In terms of value for money, cinema has a hard time competing with that.”

The film industry has responded to this shift in viewing preferences. Studios are now investing less in dramatic cinema, leaving drama to the domain of television, which Mr Duncan said is the best format to tell deeper stories.

“Studios are now mostly making spectacles, big $100 million productions with impressive visuals and loud sounds to be experienced in the cinema and the storyline is almost secondary. The advantage for television is that it has hours allocated over several episodes which allow it to develop interesting characters and stories around them, which is something cinema cannot do within a couple of hours,” he said.

A central question at the event was how storytelling via television compares to the novel. While each speaker agreed on the merits of both mediums, the panel was divided on this issue.

“We have these wonderful BBC productions, such as Dickens’ Great Expectations, the film of which, at 105 minutes long in the 1940s, only skimmed the surface of the book,” Mr Duncan said. “But now, over several hours in a season characters and storylines can be developed in the way Dickens intended them to be received. The same can be done in an original series.”

Mr McGregor said that Redfern Now had a story for each hour-long episode. “It was like a novel every episode and I found it a great way to work,” he said.

On the other hand, Ms Homes, who worked on scripts for cable series The L Word, agreed that while television is a powerful means of storytelling, she did not think it was comparable to the novel.

“There’s a huge difference in the intimacy of narrative between a novel and television, both in the way it’s received and the way it’s written,” she said.

“In television you’re developing stories within a specific architectural framework, whether it’s in four acts or five. It’s a different way of working. With a novel you’re not setting up a shot or working within a restricted time frame, but with television you also have an image to add meaning. Television doesn’t need to be a novel. They’re two different things.”