Network television (ABC, CBS, NBC, and later on, Fox) once dominated television, for the primary reason that it was the only thing on. It was on this golden era of network television that we had The Andy Griffin Show, Happy Days, M*A*S*H, and so many more shows we all remember. However, the advent of cable, and the beginning of what has become an unending increase in channels, led to competition for the television run of movies, as well as sports, and finally, original programming.
Original programming from cable outlets, including paid cable like HBO and Showtime, was inevitable; The Sopranos, Sex and the City, more recently Dexter, Game of Thrones are great examples, and now the tables have turned where much of the best original programming is coming from channels a little further down the cable guide: AMC came out swinging with its first original series, Mad Men, since followed up by The Killing amongst others; their director for programming made the statement that they thought “quality would overcome commercial appeal.” USA had huge hits on their hands with Psych and Burn Notice, which prompted them to begin development of more series (Royal Pains, In Plain Sight, Necessary Roughness, et cetera). Finally, the big cable outlet is, surprisingly, Comedy Central, which outside of South Park and The Daily Show, may not have had a ton of success, but has been agile enough to roll with the punches, and make quick adjustments when series fall.
Even genres that once seemed like they wouldn’t fall into cable have started trickling down there: late night shows, which had always been on networks, landed in the cable arena with Lopez Tonight, which was soon joined by Conan, following Conan O’Brien’s rough departure from NBC; previous to his landing on TBS, Conan was looking at doing a show on FX; indeed, all his offers landed in cable, rather than network.
So why have cable programs had such success? Well, let’s obvious things out of the way: not all cable shows have been successful; AMC was dealt with its first bad blow with Rubicon, a conspiracy-themed show; FX has had a few bad outings, and as I said above Comedy Central could fill a stadium with the shows they’ve cancelled. Networks haven’t had a horrific run of bad luck; NCIS, NCIS: Los Angles, the CSI franchise, House, and others have been successful (and for the record, not all of them are police procedurals, my mind is just blanking right now; more of them are, though, then not). Both network and cable use reality shows as cheap fill-ins, and in some cases, they rely on them too much; and those bounce either way.
However, the reason I ask if network programming is doomed is for the same reason the good original programming is starting to shift to cable. Actually, make that reasons. For starters, cable has greater flexibility when it comes to content; Michael Gladis, who played Paul Kinsey on Mad Men‘s first three seasons, remarked that they should get away with a little more stronger language, though not necessarily that much. A lot of cable shows deal with topics that might be considered way too hot for network; Nip/Tuck dealt with dark threads over the course of the series that I find difficult for NBC or Fox to air. The big daddy of the hot content discussion is definitely South Park, which pushed the envelope in so many ways that a traditional network executive would have needed five pages to fill out the reasons why they were canceling it.
One other reasons why cable has been so successful is that they let their shows mature a little before canceling them, or at a minimum, air their full seasons before they do so. This arises largely because of necessity: they do not have mid-season replacements to call up, and in some cases, critical acclaim helps to slowly build an audience over the span of the season, something networks don’t have time for. By contrast, the carousal of canceled shows on networks can leave you dizzy; six bad outings for a new show and you’re done.
Which brings us to the third reason: expectations are usually lower, ratings-wise. A great example is Conan; the ratings on Conan O’Brien’s current show are lower than they were on The Tonight Show, the reason for his departure (when you dig into it), but TBS signed off, saying that they are quite pleased and look forward to him being on the air for a long time. Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica (2004) never generated huge ratings, but was successful enough with its core audience that is secured its own ticket to run as long as it wanted; the only network show that can really say that is 24.
The problem plaguing network shows is largely that, in the name of being innovative, they come up with shows that are not necessarily easy to sell. Remember The Event? They tried to drum up suspense by not telling you too much of what it was about; well, for me at least, that made it unappealing; at least with some shows the basic synopsis is readily available. Cable networks really can’t afford to do that, and why would you? A paragraph describing the show sells the show, or at least perks interest in it. Okay, I’m picking on one show’s failure too much. How about the concepts that sound great, but you can’t help but imagine stall in execution? There are tons of those.
By contrast, AMC has never produced a show that you couldn’t describe in a paragraph; hell, try a sentence. Mad Men is about Don Draper and his co-workers working, not only in the advertising world of the 1960s, but the changing times in which they live and work. Not only that, but the concept works, and you can see it (as it has) working for years.
So, is network programming doomed? I suppose that depends on where they decide to take it; police procedurals and forensics have been in for several years, but it’s become obvious that that train is nearing the end of its run, and that’s where the networks have been making bank for the last decade or so. NBC lost a major franchise with the demise of Law & Order; they bounced Law & Order: Criminal Intent to USA, where it had success, and ended in the manner best for it, something it likely wouldn’t have been granted had it remained on NBC.
Network programming is doomed if they don’t start appreciating the intelligence of their audience. Although the shows on cable are not necessarily what I would call cerebral, they do appreciate that the audience has intelligence and, more importantly, that it is functioning. Burn Notice and Mad Men both have multiple threads, both character and plot, that require some intelligence to tie together, and in many cases, reward the audience that connects the dots. Game of Thrones, on HBO, is in many ways inaccessible without being able to put two-and-two together, but it makes up for that by being incredibly compelling.
So, all things considered, I’d say cable and network are about even right now; trouble for cable is that fifteen years ago they were way, way ahead.