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Small screens, big issues.

There is a stigma surrounding the growing use of smaller screens to view visual entertainment. Joanne Wardrobe explores different sides of the debate; while examining the creation of viewing film. The aspect ratio, cinema prices, privacy and age, will be investigated, assessing the relationship these factors have on the 'issue' of small screen viewing.

BY Joanne Wardrobe

As I sit down to write this article, I am sat with my laptop open. My phone between the keyboard streaming the final episode of Outlander on Amazon Prime Video. This act of multi-tasking has me thinking, what is the debate about viewing on small screens? Why are there so many sceptics? Over the last few years technology has become increasingly popular. The use of popular streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has become a mainstream phenomenon. Technology has adapted so much that instead of using our phones for just simples calls and texts, the applications we now download provide us with the ability to sit on our phones and watch both recorded and live television for hours on end. Way back in 2012 it was news channels that you could watch live on your phone or tablet. The ability to open an app and find a film or TV show to invest your spare time into is focal of modern living. There is a stark difference in not only how we view entertainment but a stark difference in the price we pay for these pleasures.

Is this a problem?

The introduction of cinema became the first place for films to be a communal activity, as not everyone had the same access to television as we do now. Cinemas and theatres exhibited screenings and showed countrywide news from the last week as well as providing a vast variety of entertainment. Instead of people sitting at home and watching the news, they would often go to the cinema to seek out their entertainment. These screenings were the original forms of entertainment, and since then the development of screens has reduced in size as information and entertainment are now more readily available. The Discovery Museum in Newcastle has a collection of programmes and posters from the North East and the places that would show these forms of entertainment news.

“To be appreciated properly, a film must be seen at an appropriately large-scale and heard via a booming, high-quality sound-system, that demands the viewer’s complete attention”

Little White Lies

Little White Lies – internationally distributed movie magazine- suggests that “To be appreciated properly, a film must be seen at an appropriately large-scale and heard via a booming, high-quality sound-system, that demands the viewer’s complete attention”. The Silence of the Lambs, filmed in 1991, before the creation of smartphones, is an example of how such films belong on the big screen. Perhaps, streaming films created before the rise of small screens is best suited on the big screen to preserve the viewing experience. The communal atmosphere of the cinema is pleasing. Though, perhaps there are only some things you would want to watch on the larger screen.

Distorted viewing?

Each form of moving image has a unique aspect ratio. Those black lines at the top and bottom of your screen when you watch something. For this reason, the way we view a film can affect the way in which the view takes meaning from the film. I never really paid any attention to this until I was in a film class. While studying the different aspect ratios of clips of the same film, I noticed a significant difference in the two outputs of the same text; this can result in missing vital information. Two different versions had different mise en scène which also led me to wonder what other creative aspects of the film could be compromised. The ratio can make a difference in the film when viewed. Therefore, streaming a film in a different ratio than intended, can damage visual effect.

Overpriced Cinemas?

I don’t know about you, but I associate cinema-going as a rare treat, due to rising pricing. Some of the lucky ones pay memberships to have unlimited access to the cinema for a monthly fee and get benefits from what the cinema has to offer. However, for many students like myself, we make Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video suffice. Admission fees for cinemas, throughout the United Kingdom, have increased dramatically over the last few years. The cinema is too expensive, and once you add up expenses for transport, snacks and look at the available times, students often do wait to stream the film or purchase the DVD release. The reductionist perception of the film belonging on the cinema screen, and to be viewed in company with other spectators, is often debated through academia. A conclusion that I have drawn from discussions with my tutors and peers is that the cinema is not just out of price range for students, but for a majority of the public.


Imagine you are sitting on the train and you are connected to the rarity of functioning Wifi for more than 5 minutes. You are going from London to York direct, which is at least a two-hour train ride, of which you can comfortably fit in something to stream. Mobile viewing creates a level of privacy and personalisation; viewing that can be scheduled around you and your day to day life. However, people can still look over your shoulder and see what you are doing but for the most part other people will also be involved in their own phones and not paying any attention to what is surrounding them.

Is it an age thing?

“Those under the age of 25 are becoming increasingly reliant on their smartphone to…watch video (77% watch online videos at least weekly)”

The Drum

Speculation into how people spend their time watching film and television on their phones can point to the demographic of users. The Drum — an online publication that provides Marketing and Media industry news — notes that “Those under the age of 25 are becoming increasingly reliant on their smartphone to…watch video (77% watch online videos at least weekly)”. Since the creation of moving images and spectatorship there has been a decrease in screen size, and now the smaller screens are the most common in a younger demographic.

The reality of this discussion all allows me to question: is the adoption of a small screen such a significant issue? Not really. It comes down to personal preference and freedom to explore different creative platforms. The idea of watching movies and television shows on mobile phones does not force us to exclude the traditional cinema industry. The debate indeed comes down to preference and convivence. Phones have come a long way from their early days of being flipped and switched. The functions that mobile devices now enable is undoubtedly a triumph for society. We can communicate and gratify with content, without being attached to a computer or wire, surely our engagement with small screens is not as problematic as it may be deemed.