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?
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?”
– What’s (playing) on TV?
– Game of Thrones.
– Who is on (the set) tonight?
– Will Bran be in this episode?
– No, he was in the last one.