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Seitz Asks: Should Netflix Shows Be Considered ‘Television’?

Seitz Asks: Should shows such as House of Cards and the new Arrested Development be considered "television"?
Seitz Answers: Maybe we need a new word.

This is an untraditional "Seitz Asks" in that I'm not just throwing the floor open for illustrations of a particular category or point. I'm asking you to help me define a medium that's getting a bit harder to define, and to kick a few ideas around.

You know that House of Cards debuted earlier this year on Netflix. You might not know that it's eligible for Emmys this year in the drama category, and that Arrested Development will be eligible in the comedy category.* In theory, five years from now we might see more than one category dominated by Netflix or YouTube or some other streaming service that's gotten into the original-programming business; suddenly the cable channels, which have dominated the drama categories for a solid decade or more, might feel as threatened as the broadcast networks started to feel a while ago, watching an upstart sister grab the spotlight and saying, "Hey, wait a second, that's not fair — they have freedoms we don't have."

Younger readers may not remember this debate. It began heating up in the mid-nineties when cable channels such as HBO produced dramas, comedies, movies, and mini-series that were good enough to crowd the networks' similar offerings out of their Emmy categories. The broadcast networks argued that the cable channels had an unfair advantage because they had fewer contract restrictions and tended to make shorter seasons that were easier to plan out; both made it more likely that original and consistent popular art could be made on cable. 

I think it's possible to make a similar argument about streamed shows that go up all at once. They're meant to be viewed all at once, and they're conceived like a very long movie, and produced that way, too — which is different from the production of a broadcast or cable network series, which is spread out over a much longer period and requires a lot more improvisation on the part of writers and crew. 

On top of all that, you could argue that "television" is a specific medium, just as "cinema" was, and carries its own set (no pun intended) of viewing associations. The Oscars define a movie as something that plays in a theater, even if it's only for a week-long Oscar-eligibility run in New York or Los Angeles. Television has traditionally appeared on, well, a television set. Now it's running on computers and phones as well, so the noun "television" or the abbreviation "TV" become slightly problematic, just as the word "film" doesn't apply in quite the same way when you're talking about something that's shot on video. In reviews of theatrical motion pictures, I used to call a digitally shot film a "movie," out of respect for the different art of lighting for celluloid film; but eventually I gave up and called everything a "film" because I seemed to be the only person worried about such distinctions.

I ask you, readers, what do you think of all this? Do you agree with the Emmys that House of Cards and its ilk should be allowed to compete directly with sitcoms and dramas that were meant to air on actual televisions, over a longer span of time? Or should they compete in a different category, or not at all, or with certain caveats? If a show never airs on a television, does it even make sense to refer to it as a television show, or should we just call it a show?

I think these shows are definitely shows, but the word "television" seems problematic to me, for some of the reasons outlined above. The Emmys have already made their decision, but I wonder what it'll do to the concept of television, and to the word itself?

The nerd pool is open. Dive in and take a swim with me.

* This post previously stated that Arrested Development would be eligible for Emmy consideration next year.

Photo: Netflix