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Network TV takes page out of Hollywood’s book

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Just about any night of the week, television viewers can tune in to shows so elaborate, complex and effects-filled it seems Hollywood has invaded the small screen. While this has been somewhat of a staple in television since its inception in the 1950s, modern technology allows television series creators to create more wide-ranging and engaging programs than ever before.

Television used to be more straightforward with “Seinfeld” and “E.R.,” but it has become – more than ever – an experience for its viewers thanks to the inclusion of technical and specific terminology and jargon. The various incarnations of “CSI” and “Law and Order” spinoffs began the pattern of giving viewers an in-depth look into the workings of crime investigation and courtroom procedure.

As television viewers demanded even more detail and connectedness to their shows, the concept of serialization became the hottest method of snaring audiences and keeping them loyal to a show. This meant that a program would tell a large story arc over the course of a season while telling smaller, more detailed stories in each individual episode.

To entice viewers to watch these serial shows, producers make use of eye-catching features such as multiple locations that often feature large-scale set pieces, large casts of characters and numerous special effects. These on-camera elements are combined with smart writing from shows like “Law and Order” to create television shows that are in essence weekly movies broadcast into homes all over the world.

Current shows are most famous for adopting this style, but early television pioneered the trend with shows like “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” starring Fess Parker. Walt Disney created this serialized show in 1954 to tell various stories from the life of the “king of the wild frontier.” The shows were aired in serial format and were not simple, studio-based shows, but were filmed on realistic sets.

In the modern era, “24” continued this trend while employing technological advances to create more realistic special effects than those used in the 1950s. Show creators adopted an epic scope to tell their story while also creating characters with enough depth to solicit sympathy and attraction from viewers. Many Hollywood actors including Keifer Sutherland, Elisha Cuthbert and Dennis Hopper were attached to “24,” giving the show an acting credibility that earned it dozens of awards.

The success of “24” was aided by already existing audiences familiar with similar cinematic, serial television shows on other networks including HBO’s “The Sopranos,” “Lost” and, more recently, Fox’s “Prison Break.” The trend of using Hollywood actors continued with ABC’s “Lost,” which stars “Lord of the Rings” actor Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), and Bryan Singer – who directed the first two “X-Men” films – is a producer of Fox’s “House.” These shows mimick the engaging characters and compelling storylines of “24” and became almost cult-phenomena within weeks of their respective debuts.

Unlike their film counterparts, shows such as these benefit from their continued existence in that fans have the ability to influence decisions show creators make as the seasons progress. Internet communities have sparked changes on “Lost,” especially with respect to how the show reveals its mysterious secrets.

Fans of “24” called a telephone number repeatedly displayed on cell phones that were seen during airings of the show. They were then connected to the “Fan Phone,” which gave them a chance to interact with and give input to the show’s creators. The end result of this fan interaction allows serial television shows to look like movies, but also adapt to changing times and audiences.

The effort that goes into making a single episode of this type of show is immense, with several days of 14-hour shoots necessary for one episode of “24.” This sheer amount of work causes very few serial shows like “24” to succeed, but when they do, the result is television as immersive and captivating as the movies.