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Why is it always "in" a movie and "on" television?

You never hear or read anything like:

He was in that TV show, "Columbo".

He was on that movie, "Scarface".

It's always the other way around. Why is that?

closed as off-topic by Scott, Phil Sweet, NVZ, oerkelens, GoldenGremlin Aug 10 '16 at 23:02

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    I believe that the premise of your question is flawed.   While I find “in television” to be awkward, I consider “in a television show” to be acceptable and unremarkable.  A quick search yielded “Peter Falk in Columbo” in the Wikipedia page on Columbo (in the caption for a photograph), «… before he starred in "Columbo," Peter Falk played an investigative reporter in a TV drama …» here, and others. – Scott Aug 9 '16 at 20:00
  • I guess it depends which way you use it. While that example makes sense, consider the following: "Michael Richards and Jason Alexander were in the Seinfeld show." "On" sounds better in that sentence, IMO. On the other hand, "Marlon Brando was on The Godfather" sounds awkward. – user190075 Aug 9 '16 at 20:02
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    It's metaphor. Somewhat arbitrarily, movies are long enough to be considered to be containers for information, and therefore use in, while TV show, programs, TV, radio, the news, The XYZ Show, etc. are considered effectively two-dimensional, like the screen they appear on. – John Lawler Aug 9 '16 at 20:15
  • That makes sense. I had also noticed you never hear or see "in" when referring to radio. – user190075 Aug 9 '16 at 20:19
  • Good point, well made. – Felina Hotchkin Feb 4 '17 at 3:03
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There isn't a reason but you can make one up if you want to. Here's my made up explanation: Note that "on" is used in, "What's on... TV, the radio, your phone, the turntable?" In other words, what is playing on that device? In contrast, what is in those devices, inside them, is a lot of hardware, circuitry and so forth.

"In" is used in the following, "in a story, in a book, in a movie, in a play..." It refers to an imaginary space-time zone in which events takes place. "In this story, a little girl wearing a red riding hood meets a wolf." "In this episode of Game of Thrones, Tyrion unchains two dragons without getting hurt."

When you say someone was on a show, a television show, you are referring to the set, to the stage. In this case, the actors or people are physically on set, on stage, the same way a pencil is on the table or your hand is resting on your lap. So, you say, "Who was on (the set of the) Bill Maher (show) last night?" "Who was on Bill Maher last night?"

So: - What's (playing) on TV? - Game of Thrones. - Who is on (the set) tonight? - Tyrion. - Will Bran be in this episode? - No, he was in the last one.

  • That's a good assessment. However..."When you say someone was on a show, a television show, you are referring to the set, to the stage. " —but don't movies also take place on a set (depends on the movie)? Like a TV show, they are both filmed on set pieces, and you later watch both of them on the same device. – user190075 Aug 9 '16 at 20:39
  • An answer starting 'There isn't a reason but you can make one up if you want to. Here's my made up explanation... ' is not what ELU is intended for. As MετάEd has said: 'Answers which consist of virtually nothing but an unsupported statement or a citation are not useful and may be subject to deletion – even correct answers. For help writing a good answer, see How to Answer. [bolding mine]. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '16 at 20:55