Although the U.S. blockbuster didn’t emerge until the 1970s, the practices of basing films on pop-cultural ephemera like popular board games and duplicating familiar story properties and characters have been common in filmmaking since its origins. In 1905, Thomas Edison released The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog, a film based on a popular souvenir postcard image. The movie’s appeal was predicated on its ability to create a moving, breathing version of a popular postcard series featuring a humorously named family. It isn’t a big leap from a successful film based on a souvenir postcard to a successful film based on a board game. The drive to exploit audience interests in comic strips, magic lantern shows, vaudeville, popular songs, and other films and then to replicate those successful formulas over and over until they cease to make money is foundational to the origins and success of filmmaking worldwide.
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It isn’t just the film industry that relies on multiplicities to generate sure profits. Television also relies on the replication and repetition of successful formulas as a central part of its production strategies. Although this process of creative theft is central to capitalism itself, it is, as in the case of cinema, a generally denigrated process, as if the entry of capitalism somehow contradicts the possibility of art. Unoriginal art, in critical parlance, is an oxymoron.
In the 1950s, during the early days of television ownership, most American TV owners were upscale and urban. They were what we now call “first adopters,” and they had the money to invest in a new and untested form of home entertainment. The industry was based in New York, and for a variety of reasons, including sponsors’ ownership of time blocks, live televised theater was one of its dominant forms.
These teleplays featured adaptations of works by the nation’s most notable authors (Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Television playwrights, especially Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were national figures. This early programming was modernist in its insistence on the unique, isolated text, and hence was distinct from the forms of multiplicity—especially the situation comedy and the continuing dramatic series—that soon came to dominate. But the world of television changed as new forms of financing evolved and more Americans acquired sets. TV subsequently became understood as a lowbrow, commercial mass medium that could be experienced by anyone.
The scholars Michael Newman and Elana Levine argue that beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, when the concept of “quality television” increased the possibilities of targeting programming to desirable (read: affluent) audiences, television began to once again aspire to become a highbrow medium. Other technological changes, such as the practice of putting entire seasons on DVD, as well as the amount of serious writing that critics began to devote to their favorite shows, created the sense that American television was finally being appreciated as an art form. According to Levine and Newman, “Legitimation always works by selection and exclusion; TV becomes respectable through the elevation of one concept of the medium at the expense of the other.” Indeed, HBO’s famous ad campaign from the 1990s, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” is a good example of how television can be legitimated as art only if it’s distanced from the medium of television itself.