For a long while I have had what felt like a workable definition of television, one adaptable to a changing world of proliferating platforms. It was generous — including everything from Vine videos to decade-long network dramas — and it was also fundamentally exclusive: Television, to my mind, was everything that wasn't the movies.
That definition has become less workable of late. It may, in fact, be on the verge of becoming useless.
Technology, that destroyer of worlds, is at the bottom of it: digital cameras with fine lenses that can achieve the look of film with none of the cost; software that puts special effects within affordable reach; bigger, sharper, smarter sets.
And perhaps most important, faster delivery systems that can reliably shuttle a movie by cable or satellite into a modem and out to a television without freezing or pixelating. On the one hand, they make TV more cinematic; on the other, they make cinema more like TV.
Structural improvements have helped make television more attractive to filmmakers and brought big-name directors, writers and actors into the fold, redoubling the success of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Like Showtime and HBO before them, they went from being recyclers of content to producers. They began with things that looked like television and moved on to things that look like movies, sometimes made by people who also work in the movies but appreciate the freedom the new streaming frontier affords.
At the same time, Netflix and Amazon are looking to make or acquire films for theatrical runs as well — they want Oscars as well as Emmys.
For most of its life, TV was what you watched in your house, alone or with friends or family; movies were what you watched in a theater, among strangers. When you watched a movie made for theaters on television, it was not television, it was merely "on" television. (It was also edited for content, time and commercials, panned and scanned to fit the boxier format of the cathode-ray tube TV set.) And television, with rare exceptions remained something you watched ... on a television.
The mediums started out as enemies. Indeed, some movie studios contractually forbade actors from appearing on television, and there was a kind of superstitious belief that TV work could actually hurt an established, active film career. TV was where you apprenticed for the movies, or went after your big-screen career was on the wane; film was where you headed if TV made you famous enough.
Television was cheap where movies were expensive. Indeed, back in the 1950s, when the new medium of television was cutting heavily into film attendance, the movies became tactically, defensively expensive in order to be what TV wasn't: huge, colorful, sumptuous, stereophonic.
For all the talk about television now being better than the movies, film remains more prestigious. Oscars still trump Emmys, and even today we're reflexively impressed when some big-name, big-screen actor steps down from the Olympus of cinema to walk among the little people of TV. Where the television academy allows films that have only screened in festivals, or in strictly limited runs, to compete for Emmys, no movie that plays on TV before playing in theaters is eligible for an Academy Award.
What's the difference? Financial considerations aside, it seems to be all philosophy and semantics. Does a movie suddenly turn into TV if it is produced with hopes of theatrical release but goes straight to television or a streaming service instead? Is it a question of length, of self-containment, of the overall career of the person making it? (Where does the "Vinyl" cable TV pilot fit into Martin Scorsese's canon? Or HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" into Steven Soderbergh's? Or the made-for-TV "Duel" into Steven Spielberg's?) Is it a matter of where it runs first and for how long? Is it the form or is it the platform?
What does it mean that this February, YouTube, the millennial star-making machine, launched YouTube Red Originals, a subscription service that, among other things, allows access to a slate of original, youth-oriented series and feature-length films? Are they movies or just really long videos?
If television seems fit to swallow it all, moviegoing is by no means over — that last "Star Wars" film has made more than $2 billion, and there are more than 43,000 movie screens in the U.S. But it may be that "the movies" now refers more to the experience than the thing you go there to watch, a kind of amusement park for the eyes and ears.
As critics, we still have our beats and guard them jealously. As viewers, we're already living in this new open world. Just as the distinctions between broadcast television, basic cable and premium cable have ceased to matter in the business of actually watching TV — it's all just stations on the on-screen guide, one as available as the next — so are whatever accidents of corporate birth or distribution that would make something officially a movie or a TV movie growing pointless.
These changes are inevitable, but not always easy. When "Beasts of No Nation" was simultaneously released theatrically and online last year after Netflix wrote a $12-million check for worldwide rights, like any old-school studio, the closing of the traditional monthslong "window" between theatrical and television premieres led to a boycott by four important American film chains.
And it is with the permanent closing of that window — a day when all movies are available everywhere at once, making the phrase "wait until it comes to TV" meaningless — that lines now blurred will completely be erased.