Big talent heads for small screen: TV's golden age?

On the set of "Sports Night," ABC's hip new TV show that's like ESPN on adrenaline, producer Aaron Sorkin fusses over the bleachers. The seats were once used for a live studio audience. But he removed the audience - and now wants the bleachers gone, too.

Mr. Sorkin, a screenwriter who has penned movies such as "A Few Good Men," is helping rewrite the rules of sitcom reality on TV by removing the traditional live laugh track.

He is part of a virtual stampede of Grade A film talent moving from the big to the small screen. In the process, they are helping reverse what has been the natural order of Hollywood for decades, setting the scene for a new golden age of TV.

"It [television] has all the best elements of live theater and filmmaking rolled into one," says Sorkin, who's penned every script of "Sports Night" to date and considers television a new creative frontier.

As a result of this migration, TV now serves up some of the best entertainment available, anywhere.

"For anyone who has made their name, TV is where you want to be," says Robert Thompson of the Syracuse Center for the Study of Popular Television in New York. He notes that the pilgrimage to the small screen represents a significant shift in the culture of creativity in the entertainment industry.

Only a few years ago, TV was regarded as a step down. Not any more. Film legend Francis Ford Coppola, who this spring is launching his series called "First Wave" on cable's Sci-Fi Channel, says feature films have become safe and formulaic. He blames large media conglomerates, intent on making money, for edging out directors with a creative vision. As programming outlets on cable and network TV have proliferated, the maker of "The Godfather" says now television "is more competitive and allows ... crazier ideas."

Some of Hollywood's biggest feature-film names have joined the exodus, many working behind the scenes as writers, directors, and producers. These include: Jodie Foster (director, Showtime's "Baby Dance"), Dustin Hoffman (executive producer on the coming "The Devil's Arithmetic"), and Tom Hanks (executive producer for HBO's Emmy-winning miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon").

"David Lynch should take credit for starting this trend," says Cynthia Farah, assistant film professor at the University of Texas, El Paso. "When he did 'Twin Peaks' [in 1990], he showed that it was possible to do television and not ruin your career."

Still, the show's ultimate ratings failure also showed the pitfalls for film directors accustomed to the self-contained feature-film format. "It's not as easy as you think to develop characters and story lines that are compelling over a long period of time," Ms. Farah says.

BUT for those who see the potential of the long form, television holds "unspoken promise," says Mr. Thompson. He, too, cites Mr. Lynch's groundbreaking series, noting that the director could never have done the detailed character work of a 15-part "Twin Peaks" in a feature film. "Even if you are James Cameron, you still have to end your story on film at most in three hours," he says.

Ms. Foster, who brought a film to cable' last August, says movies made for TV offer more possibilities. "People are willing to take the financial risk to say, 'I won't get paid my full fee, but I'm going to try to make a film that's unique, that's about character.'" Then she adds, "That's increasingly much more difficult to do in features now."

For some making the switch, audience reach is also an attraction.

"It's hard to ignore the fact that in an average week, more than 50 million people watch television," says Garth Jowett, film and TV professor at University of Texas in Houston. That's "far more than will ever see a film in its entire feature release."

Home audiences ultimately benefit from the talent trek, says Mr. Jowett. More people bringing their visions to TV inevitably creates competition and, he adds, higher quality TV. Jowett has a personal gauge of how good things could get: "My dream is to see the anthology return to TV," he laughs. If that format, in the manner of the old "Alcoa Theater" or "Twilight Zone," can find a TV home, he says, it will represent the best of both film and TV - high-quality ensemble acting and writing combined with the possibilities of new worlds every week.

Underneath all this high-toned talk of quality and creativity, of course, is always the money factor.

Even here, TV has the potential to trump film. "Long range, television has the potential to be really lucrative," says Pamela Ezell of Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Syndication or foreign-distribution deals can pay off handsomely in the long run. The rising interest in "the business of entertainment" has created an after market in everything that has to do with pop culture. Specials about the inside business of Hollywood are popular on television, as are celebrity appearances and talk shows. There's even a cable channel, E!, devoted exclusively to the entertainment business.

"TV has a cachet today that it didn't have just a short while ago," Ms. Ezell says, "and the reason is simple. That's where the audiences are."

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