Dead People Segment Underscores Confluence of TV, Movies

For a ghoulish way to examine the growing intertwining of the "movie" and "TV" industries, look no further than the "I See Dead People" segment of Sunday's Oscar-cast and look back to the similar segment of September's Emmy-cast.

Many of the movie stars on the Motion Picture Academy's In Memoriam list were far better known for their TV work, starting with the first name on-screen, cable celebrity James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) plus historic icons such as Sid Caesar.  Not to mention critic Roger Ebert, a TV personality who wrote and spoke about movies.  Last year's Emmy In Memoriam list also cited plenty of crossover talent, such as Annette Funicello, Jonathan Winters (who did not make the Oscar list), Eileen Brennan and technology pioneer Ray Dolby, whose name is on the Hollywood venue for the Oscar event. (His company's work is now heavily focused on video post-production and delivery.) 

Today's chatter about how traditional filmmakers are leaning toward TV and especially cable (and other broadband formats) typically focuses on the perception of the greater flexibility and market reach that video platforms provide.  It also reminds us about the fuzzing distinctions between movies and TV, a blur that has been in the works for seven decades and is now greater than ever.

While the Memoriam segments of the award shows are always controversial (especially who is left out because of time limits), the lists offer fond memories plus benchmarks about who was and what will be important. Clearly, the old movie stars on this year's roster (such as Peter O'Toole and Esther Williams) may have had no interest or opportunity to venture into TV. Newer talent often cut their teeth in TV; think of the much- and deservedly celebrated Harold Ramis, back in his '80s SCTV days.

Today's shift back toward TV preference may be one gauge of how many producers and performers follow the economics. The migration will also raise challenges - and make it irrelevant - to separate their work into TV versus movie productions.  It's harder to identify the crossover film/TV experience of the sizeable behind-the-camera contingent (cinematographers, editors, technical experts plus writers, producers and directors) who work on both platforms.  Clearly, there have historically been different skills for the preferred destination screen. But those distinctions have been fading out for decades as everyone recognized that theatrical releases would soon be widely seen on the home screen, and now on the handheld screen.

Using dead people as a gauge for Hollywood's evolving self-perception may not be the best or most savory method to interpret the ascendance of TV as the platform-of-choice. Yet this macabre measuring stick provides fascinating hints about what matters. You can compare and contrast the most recent rosters by looking at the 2014 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Memoriam list (which is not fully up-to-date, since Harold Ramis and Sarah Jones are not included here yet) and the September 2013 Academy of TV Arts and Sciences Memoriam telecast segment.

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.