When movies and TV shows are everywhere all the time, they lose the sense of scarcity and importance that originally made them so special.
I stumbled upon The Italian Job (the original 1969 version, naturally – accept no pointless imitations) on TV the other night – midway through, as is often the case with things you accidentally find on TV. Of course, I watched it. If nothing else, this is film as comfort food, a familiar but always entertaining narrative that you can easily dip in and out of because that familiarity allows you to fill in the gaps with your memory of the film. It’s an ideal distraction – never too distracting but good to zone out with when you don’t have the time or inclination for something that requires more concentration.
But… I found myself telling Mrs. R. about how this film appearing on TV used to be a real event back in the 1970s and 1980s. A peak-time, BBC1 big deal that felt like an unmissable moment, the sort that would be discussed in the schoolyard all the next day. If you missed it, you’d really missed it because it might be years before you had another chance to catch the movie. And while The Italian Job was not that old and the very stuff of cult cinema back then, it wasn’t just this film. You could say the same about much older movies. I remember how breathlessly exciting it was to see King Kong in the TV schedules and how people would plan their evening around the rare broadcast of a classic (or even not-so-classic) movie back in the days of three or four TV channels and no home video. Similarly, the re-release of a movie to cinemas – be it one of the regular Disney re-releases that ensured that each generation got to see those movies made decades before they were born or the reissues of Bond films, Jaws, Star Wars and the like, often on double bills of the original film and its sequel – was something that would pull in huge crowds because who knew when you might see these films again. The Bond films feel especially relevant as, like The Italian Job, a Bond film appearing on TV was a Very Big Deal, maybe the first time in years that anyone had been able to see that movie. These shared experiences meant something and were, in their own way, national events.
Those days are over. In a world of multi-channel TV and streaming services, online video (of varying levels of legality) and physical media, it feels as though nothing is very special. The Bond films and The Italian Job are on TV all the time – I know this because the previous time I saw The Italian Job on TV was a month or so ago and I’ve seen bits of From Russia with Love at least three times this year. And that’s not counting their availability from on-demand services and on disc. With TV channels that simply run entire TV series as a loop, starting again from the start once they have reached the final episode, there is no longer the need to wait for anything. Yes, a few movies still wallow in distribution obscurity but for the most part, major films and TV series are all there to watch whenever you want. Even if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, they’ll probably turn up on free TV with alarming frequency.
While this is, in many ways, a great democratising of entertainment, making everything (well, everything mainstream and populist) available to everyone all the time, it does make it all now feel very ordinary. There is no thrill in seeing a Bond film on TV anymore – even if you miss a rare one-off broadcast, there is always a catch-up service for you. There is nothing, aside from major live broadcasts (and maybe not even those events) that absolutely have to be experienced in the moment or during a short window of time. I can’t help but feel that it is this ubiquity that has made our TV broadcasters lazy and generic, at once increasingly desperate to snag the bulk of an ever-diminishing audience and unimaginative, content to pump out mindless pap that means nothing to anyone. Perhaps TV as we knew it was always doomed once alternatives became available – but even so, do you really think that there are shows that get the national tongue wagging in the way they used to? While those with a vested interest would still have you believe that everyone is discussing the events of Strictly Come Dancing over the water cooler, the truth is that these ‘hit’ shows have viewing figures so pitiful that not only would they have been given the immediate chop less than 20 years ago but are also being watched by such a small percentage of the population that there is only a slight chance that your work colleagues have even watched the same thing as you. Even the biggest film releases fail to have the same sort of lasting, continuing impact that the big movies of the 1970s and 1980s had – everything just comes and goes in the blink of an eye.
There is a vast entertainment media that depends on pretending that Event TV and Event Cinema is still a thing, make-believing that we are all still excited about the same things at the same time. But that’s increasingly a myth. We are all our own programmers now and for the most part, that’s a good thing – no one wants a return to the days when our entertainment choices were in the hands of a small group of cultural gatekeepers. But it also means that lazy TV broadcasters will run certain films and TV shows into the ground with constant repetition, robbing them of any value and turning them into visual muzak that renders them unimportant even for those of us that love them. With every gain, there is a loss, and I can’t help but feel that with the abundance of everything, it all ultimately becomes unimportant and disposable.
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