Broadcasters get frugal as bigscreen welcomes blockbusters

An abundance of quality dramas has reignited discussion about whether TV has artistically eclipsed movies, with influential Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott recently suggesting television is “where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders.”

At least, most of the time.

Because come May, a flip of the switch occurs among the entertainment media’s most widely consumed representatives: Broadcast networks throw on an assortment of inexpensive (and occasionally more than a little trashy) reality shows; and major studios roll out a dizzying array of theatrical blockbusters.

The two inadvertently dovetail, and in a strange way have come to complement each other. Put in baseball terms — America’s summer pastime, after all — it’s the equivalent of one team laying down a sacrifice bunt while the other swings for the fences.

Watch network TV after Memorial Day, and the clear hope is viewers will become absorbed by which fame-seeking wannabe wins a dating competition or survives a claustrophobic elimination contest, conducted entirely within a studio soundstage.

Enter the local multiplex, and you’ll be treated to fantastic characters saving the world from existential nastiness. Hobbits, aliens and costumed heroes abound.

Movies thus become huge global confections at the very moment TV becomes immersed in, to quote “Casablanca,” the problems of a few little people — clearly a dividing thematic pursuit of macro vs. micro.

If this doesn’t sound completely new, it’s actually a more recent development than one might assume.

Yes, major broadcasters traditionally shut down for the summer, offering reruns after the May rating sweeps. Only in the past few years, however, have they become so determined to maintain an original profile by replacing the reruns upon which they once relied with unscripted originals, such as they are.

As a consequence, front-line scripted series still wrap up their seasons in May, taking a post-finale siesta until the fall. Sure, people are watching classy dramas like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” on cable, but based on sheer tonnage, far more tune into such weightless summer filler as NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” or CBS’ “Big Brother.”

The networks stumbled into this formula, and it’s worked reasonably well as a stopgap measure to keep the lights on. What they haven’t done — despite past pronouncements to the contrary — is aggressively seek to launch scripted fare during the summer; a few relatively inexpensive Canadian imports do not a cohesive strategy make.

Movie theaters, meanwhile, have been almost completely overrun by fantasy or, barring that, extremely broad comedies.

Although the concept of “summer blockbusters” is commonly traced to the 1970s — with “Jaws,” followed by “Star Wars” — the notion of huge special effects-laden extravaganzas opening practically every weekend from early May well into August is a much more recent product, which didn’t wholly take root until the 21st century. Moreover, the crush to horn in on those potentially boffo returns has expanded the “summer” window by several weeks on both the front and back ends.

If there’s a unifying element here, it’s the dual emphasis on escapism, and while fantasy movies and unscripted programming attract more eyeballs than anything else in their respective

media, it’s worth noting neither one ranks particularly high when it comes to critical prestige.

Of course, the switch flips back a bit in September, when networks trot out their highest-profile new series — predominantly of the scripted variety — and studios are more open to character-driven filmmaking, especially if it has a chance to wind up on somebody’s year-end “best” lists.

Still, the record-setting success of “The Avengers” and ancillary revenue that augurs for Disney — coupled with the relative success of summer reality — dictates there’s little chance either trend will abate any time soon, even if the crush creates room for what amounts to counterprogramming, like the indie movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

Whatever inroads television has made in critical esteem, then, we’ve entered the unofficial period when the bigscreen really does seem that much bigger, and TV — at least in terms of the aspirations on its broadest platforms — shrinks in the summer heat.

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