Film vs. TV? In Truth, They’ve Been Married for 70 Years

In a prescient Variety column in 1978, reporter Jim Harwood talked about the blurring distinction (artistic and technical) between film and television. He wrote: “Is a ‘motion picture’ any less of an accomplishment if it’s beamed from Hollywood directly to a wall-sized screen in somebody’s home instead of being hauled in cans to something called a theatre? We suppose there will be a lot of arguments about that in the next 50 years.”

Yes, Mr. Harwood, there have indeed been many heated arguments, often centered on streaming services including Amazon and Netflix — and especially during awards time. TV and film seem separate, but, in truth, those two have been deeply connected for nearly decades.

In the 1950s, the DNA of the Academy Awards was forever changed when the ceremony debuted on TV, setting the tone for other kudocasts. And though awards season chatter sometimes centers on films, TV categories are a crucial part of Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice and all the guild ceremonies.

Surprisingly, the idea of televised awards was pioneered by the New York Film Critics organization. On Jan. 20, 1952, the group handed out awards at Hotel Algonquin ceremonies, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” as best pic. A few hours later, these presentations were re-created on CBS’ Ed Sullivan variety show, “Talk of the Town.” The following year, NBC aired an afternoon show tied to the N.Y. Film Critics rites, but interest dwindled.

Undeterred, the Academy Awards made its TV debut with its 25th event, on March 19, 1953. RCA was the sole sponsor. Oldsmobile paid $275,000 to sponsor the second Oscarcast, on March 25, 1954. On the following day, an unsigned Variety piece complained that the winners sauntered slowly down the aisle to accept their awards, making the show seem endless. For the record, the show’s running time was 90 minutes.

Accompanying that story was a piece by Daily Variety editor Joe Schoenfeld, under the headline “Ouch! Those Commercials!” He said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences should “get assurances from future sponsors that commercials will be held to a minimum.” He added, “Oscar night should [be about] pictures being sold — not cars being oversold.” (Among the actors in Olds commercials was Betty White, the Zelig of television history.)

Schoenfeld suggested the film industry sponsor future Oscars, an idea that was seriously considered for several years.

Despite Oscar’s ratings success — the ’54 show drew an estimated 80% of TV households — other networks and awards-givers were reluctant to commit to TV kudocasts. But the 21-year-old Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. signed with NBC to have a segment of the 1964 ceremonies air on NBC’s variety program “The Andy Williams Show.”

In 1966, the Golden Globes got its own show, bouncing around various networks for several decades, returning to NBC in 1995. That also happens to be the year that the SAG Awards made its debut, also on NBC.

Meanwhile, the majority of showbiz honors — including the AFI Awards and the guilds (directors, writers, et al) — eschew TV deals. They are losing out on income, but the tradeoff is the fun atmosphere at the events, and they can maintain control of the content.

Some people still refer to the September-to-February calendar as “Oscar season,” since it climaxes with the Academy Awards. But in fact, the season is filled with awards for television. For years, TV was relegated to second-class status. But at some point in the 21st century, TV offered artists more creative freedom, and it is growing exponentially in prestige among artists, audiences and awards-givers.

So far, Oscars are still the center of the solar system that other awards shows revolve around. It’s theoretically a celebration of film, but don’t forget: In terms of choices in presenters, date-scheduling and everything else, it’s basically still a television show.

More Film

  • The Batman Robert Pattinson

    'The Batman' Leaked Images and Video Reveal Batcycle, Full Batsuit

    A series of leaked images and a 12-second video taken from the set of “The Batman” reveal the first look at the Batcycle and the full Batsuit. The unauthorized images were taken during an outdoor location shoot for the film at the Glasgow Necropolis cemetery in Scotland, according to the caption accompanying the images on [...]

  • Barneys closing

    Barneys, Fabulous Department Store for Movie Stars, Dies at 97

    A few years ago, I found myself at the Barneys department store in Beverly Hills on Dec. 24, wandering around on the men’s floor. It was almost closing time, and there was something depressing about being at Barneys at dusk on the night before Christmas. The store was empty, almost ghost-like, except for another shopper, [...]

  • 'Wildland' Review: Sidse Babett Knudsen Is

    'Wildland': Film Review

    After the sudden death of her mother, an introverted teenager is taken in by an estranged female relative, who turns out to be the matriarch of a dangerous criminal family. If the essential logline of Danish director Jeanette Nordahl’s quietly tense debut “Wildland” sounds more than a little familiar, perhaps the same thought occurred to [...]

  • 30West Acquires Stake in U.K.’s Altitude

    30West to Acquire Stake in British Film Company Altitude

    30West is to acquire a significant minority stake in Altitude Media Group, the British film company led by Will Clarke and Andy Mayson. The move marks 30West’s second corporate investment after it took a stake in 2018 in U.S. film distributor Neon, whose Korean film “Parasite” won an Oscar for best picture – the first [...]

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Cinematographer, Costume Designer on the 'Painterly' 18th-Century Look

    “Painterly” might be an overused term to describe a certain aesthetic of period cinematography, informed by candlelit interiors and sweeping outdoor compositions. But it seizes the essence of French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s deeply feminist 18th-century gay romance set on the coast of Brittany, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which debuted in theaters on Valentine’s [...]

  • 'Malmkrog' Review

    'Malmkrog': Film Review

    Since Cristi Puiu’s “Malmkrog” means to drown the viewer in a dense and arcane philosophical debate about Good and Evil, the nature of Christ, Europe and the direction of History, let’s add another strand to the discussion: how is cinema put to best use? It’s an especially pertinent question since Puiu’s always stunning use of [...]

  • Onward Animated Film 2020

    'Onward': Film Review

    Later this year  — Nov. 19, 2020, to be exact — will mark the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Toy Story,” the first feature from Pixar. In 1995, that movie launched the digital-animation revolution, a paradigm shift that Pixar, for a long time, more or less owned. Yet as the company’s innovations evolved into [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content