How TV is taking over the world

Television is where the best stories are being told – just ask Dustin Hoffman, Sam Mendes and Twitter

Making history is usually so tiring. But you, dear reader, are fomenting revolution from the comfort of your armchair – you just haven’t been told how important you are.


Take the rules of technical innovation. They used to be so simple: old media meets new media and collapses into dust with a gentle sigh. But just as cave paintings were replaced by papyrus, town criers by newspapers and newsreels by radio, will social media replace television? No, says Deb Roy, chief media scientist for Twitter. Last October, he threw in the towel and declared TV to be “the most pervasive global medium ever.”

Twitter, he announced, would now base its business model on TV’s coat-tails. “People tweet more when they watch TV,” he shrugged. Around the same time Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode was transmitted live to some 77 million people around the world. When did television get so big? And is the Mafia secretly to blame?

“I think we’d definitely put it down to Tony Soprano,” says Stuart Murphy, director of Sky Entertainment Channels.

“The Sopranos set a new standard in TV – any other broadcaster around the world who had a Mafia drama in their drawer would have dumped it.”

Post-Sopranos, heroes could be dark and shattered — like Don Draper and Dexter; families could be complex — from the Gallaghers of shameless to the Pritchetts of Modern Family; cops could be out of their depth — like Olivia Colman in Broadchurch.

And Murphy isn’t alone in crediting the show with changing the quality of television forever.

“That series was one of the greatest examples of long-form narrative art produced in the last 25 years,” director Sam Mendes told Radio Times last week, explaining why he dreams of making a high-end TV drama series equal in stature to The Sopranos. “It’s an untouchable piece of work with its own unique universe; who wouldn’t dream of making something equal to that?”

Like Dr Frankenstein in the lab, Mendes’ dream is made flesh this season with Penny Dreadful. Skyfall writer John Logan’s script imagines Victorian London peopled with the likes of Dorian Gray, Count Dracula and, yes, Dr F and his lurching monster. Josh Hartnett, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Billie Piper Star.

That Mendes, Logan and co should be writing for television would have been impossible ten years ago. These days, actors, directors and writers realise that great TV is where the best stories are told. “Working in TV reminds me of working in the theatre,” explains Dustin Hoffman.

“You get time to develop character and story. If you really care and you want some control, you go to television. I think that’s what drew Martin Scorsese to Boardwalk Empire.”

For the past few years, many of the most highly acclaimed US-originated shows have been crossing the pond to find a home on Sky. This week sees the launch of another drama with two superstar names, True Detective, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two cops tracking a Louisiana serial killer.

McConaughey was quick to extol the virtues of TV. “Some of the best drama going on has been on television — especially in comparison to some films. There’s no transition any more.”

In a curious twist, there’s a James Bond link to Sky Atlantic’s Fleming, starring Dominic Cooper as Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, womanising his way through the Second World War.

And with an eye on the post-war era, there’s also the comedy Mr Sloane, featuring Nick Frost as a 1960s suburbanite struggling to make sense of his life (Olivia Colman plays his estranged wife).

These dramas are part of British TV’s next step — to produce drama that’s so good, channels in the US drop their projects once they see what the Brits have done. Unmissable moments from British TV are sweeping the world’s screens with actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Garfield leaping from our small screen to movie-star status.

But Murphy believes big names should be encouraged to stay with television — indeed, Sky Atlantic’s most ambitious production yet, Fortitude, has attracted Hollywood’s Stanley Tucci, who’ll join Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon, Jessica Raine and The Killing star Sofie Grabol for a drama centred on the investigation of a murder in the Arctic Circle.

But it’s not simply the cast, it’s the jaw-dropping moments that will pull you in. If seeing Tony Soprano in his shrink’s office reinvented gangsters, the moment a laddish fireman in Sky1’s new drama the smoke strips off to reveal the damage a blaze caused to his body will help us rethink modern masculinity — guaranteed.

It’s one of those moments that people will tweet about. And then their friends will tune in and spread the word and the internet will light up doing exactly what it does best: making TV even bigger than before.