For the past 12 years—since the debut of The Sopranos—the assumption has been that cable networks put on the best programs on TV. The movement toward more sophisticated, adult storytelling began at HBO, then spread to other networks, from FX to Showtime to AMC to Starz, with plenty of others in between. Artistically daring networks that were willing not just to indulge in adult language and content, but also to tell long, slow-paced stories that accumulated over time and really let viewers get to know their characters, became common on cable, while the broadcast networks, increasingly dependent on reality shows and crime procedurals, got left behind.
This continues to be the assumption. The most heavily hyped pilot last fall was HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a sumptuous, gorgeously directed and shot period piece about the rise of organized crime in 1920s Atlantic City. The series signaled a confident new attitude at HBO, a network some had counted out, as it increasingly depended on silly shows like True Blood and Entourage in the face of the rise of networks like FX and AMC. But Boardwalk Empire was never more than a solid series that never quite ignited the kind of passion The Sopranos or The Wire did back in the day. It was liked, not loved.
And one by one, the big cable drama series for the year flopped either with critics or viewers—sometimes both. FX’s Terriers was greeted by critical hosannas, but canceled after one season. AMC’s Rubicon took a while to find its legs, but by the time critics began praising it, viewers had already lost interest. Showtime’s Shameless and The Borgias were good, sure, but neither was a ratings smash nor a critically beloved show. FX’s Lights Out flopped immediately, and unlike Terriers, it never found anything approaching consistency. And while AMC’s The Walking Dead was a huge hit with viewers, more than a few grumbled that the show had a great pilot, followed by five episodes that squandered any good will it built up. That network’s The Killing followed a similar pattern, falling apart faster than any promising drama in recent memory. Only HBO’s Game Of Thrones prompted anything like appreciation from critics and viewers alike.
At the same time, the broadcast networks were on a quality upswing, producing more good and interesting series than they have in nearly a decade. And where HBO, AMC, and FX all seem unsure of what to do in the future, either relying on stuff that’s worked in the past (HBO) or hemming and hawing over the direction forward (AMC), the broadcast networks have thrown together the most ambitious series of pilots in years for the upcoming TV season. Not all these pilots are good—many are terrible, in fact—but few of them are standard, staid cop shows or lazy sitcoms. These are shows that are trying for new things and swinging for the fences.
So has the quality pendulum begun its long swing back toward the broadcast networks?
It’s worth considering a few caveats. There are still a lot of quality shows on cable, and many would make any top-10 list of the best shows on TV. HBO has Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Game Of Thrones. FX has Sons Of Anarchy, Louie, Justified, Archer, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. AMC has arguably the two best shows on television in Mad Men and Breaking Bad. For another, TV tends to swing back and forth in decade-long bursts. The ’70s were swimming with great sitcoms, but lousy for good dramas. The exact opposite happened in the ’80s, when Hill Street Blues led a march of great dramas onto the airwaves, and the sitcom landscape became far less interesting. When comedy grows complacent, drama pumps itself up, and vice versa. It’s entirely possible this is what’s happening in the relationship between cable and the broadcast networks. And finally, in this time of recession, the broadcast networks will have more money to throw around than any cable network not named HBO. While ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox always have more money, the gap between the haves and have-nots may end up being prohibitively large with less money on the table to begin with.
And yet if you look over that list of caveats, they start to fall apart. Cable has been terrible at developing new, great series. HBO has a lot of young shows that are vaguely enjoyable—like Hung or How To Make It In America—but no one would claim they were rewriting the rules. And while FX has a fleet of young, great shows (including Justified, Archer, and Louie, which are all either just done with their second seasons or about to start them), it couldn’t launch any new shows this season to save its life, including Terriers, the best new show of the year, and the show that was meant to tug the network more in the direction of the popular USA and TNT, with cases of the week and appealingly goofy characters. AMC, meanwhile, has been unable to launch a great show since Breaking Bad, confusing the trappings of a good cable show—moody filming, antiheroes, understated acting—with the meat beneath the surface.
And if we turn to the question of TV being cyclical, we see that broadcast networks are largely better at comedy than the cable networks are. Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny are great, but both are old shows, closer to their ends than their beginnings. Outside of Archer and Louie, then, where are the other great cable comedies? They’re either busy getting canceled (Starz’s Party Down and Showtime’s United States Of Tara) or pleasant enough shows that no one would mistake them for being among the best on television (FX’s The League). Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim provides a bastion of absurdly humorous shows like Childrens Hospital and Delocated, but the nature of the network dooms these shows to cult success at best. At the same time, even a B-level sitcom on the broadcast networks—something like Fox’s Raising Hope or ABC’s The Middle—tosses off experimental plotlines and solid gags with seemingly little effort. And that doesn’t even delve into the long list of network comedies that various critics argue are the best shows on TV, from NBC’s Community, Parks And Recreation, and 30 Rock to ABC’s Cougar Town and Modern Family to Fox’s Bob’s Burgers and Glee, a show that turned awful in its second season, but still has more inventiveness and crazy verve than any cable comedy not named Louie. Nor does it mention the many network comedies long past their prime but still able to provide solid laughs, like NBC’s The Office or CBS’ How I Met Your Mother.
Drama is where cable has truly beaten the networks in the past decade, and there are still more quality dramas on cable than there are on the broadcast networks. But in the past few development seasons, a number of broadcast dramas that can stand with cable’s dramatic series have taken root. Fox’s Fringe went from a middling sci-fi procedural to the arguable successor to Lost. NBC’s Parenthood (from the same people who put one of the few great network dramas of the past decade, Friday Night Lights, on the air) doesn’t always hit its mark, but can be moving, even devastating, when it does. And CBS’ The Good Wife is an intricate dissection of the legal and political worlds in the city of Chicago, a broadcast drama that can stand proudly with anything cable has to offer. This is not to mention the numerous ambitious dramas the networks are debuting this fall; of them, only CBS’ Unforgettable is a standard cop procedural, suggesting the broadcast networks are once again taking chances with both concepts and content. Again, not all, or even most, of these shows will be good. But any time the networks are taking chances like this, it usually leads to at least a handful of strong shows.
But let’s turn to the real reason for the rise of the quality cable series in the 2000s: economics. Most pay cable channels make their money off of a combination of ad time sold during reruns of old TV shows or movies, and cable fees paid by cable companies (and taken from your cable bills), while HBO, Showtime, and Starz make their money on a subscription basis. In the 2000s, channels like AMC and FX figured out that they could lose money on shows like Mad Men or The Shield, but entice advertisers not just to advertise during those programs, but also during the far cheaper movie rebroadcasts and sitcom reruns. Advertisers don’t want to buy ads on the Two And A Half Men rerun network, and original content remains a good lure to attract ad dollars. Make no mistake: Mad Men and The Shield were hits by the definitions of their networks, but neither came anywhere near the number of viewers commanded by the vast majority of broadcast shows. The broadcast networks made money by chasing as many people as possible; cable channels made money by chasing lucrative niches.
This is changing. The success of USA and TNT—two channels that built formidable programming slates by making the sorts of shows that might pop up on a broadcast network—and the huge ratings for shows as disparate as MTV’s Jersey Shore, AMC’s The Walking Dead, and History Channel’s Pawn Stars have shown that there’s a lucrative audience watching cable, an audience that can easily be monetized if the programming is cheap enough. Suddenly, networks that were known for dark, serialized dramas (like FX) are coming up with shows that offer more standalone, lighter tales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this when done well.) At the same time, a network like AMC seems uncertain of its future, rejecting all its proposed pilots and dallying with the idea of reality shows. Only HBO, with its piles of subscriber money, is keeping on like it traditionally has in the past. (The less said of Showtime, with its oceans of shows full of squandered potential, the better.) And other cable networks that once seemed to be interested in programming challenging fare—like A&E—have found more success by following TNT and USA’s “wacky crime-solvers” model.
At the same time, the broadcast networks have discovered there’s money to be made in programming to niche audiences, again, if the programming in question is cheap enough. Even five years ago, shows with ratings as low as those of Community, Parks And Recreation, and Fringe would have been canceled in favor of something with broader appeal. Now, their networks have surmised that by placing them in timeslots that would be losers otherwise—either ultra-competitive timeslots or slots on little-watched nights like Friday—these shows can prop up weaker parts of the schedule. More and more, the broadcast networks chase shows with dedicated cults, rather than mass appeal. Sure, a breakout hit like American Idol is always preferred, but if ABC can make a predictable amount of money plugging the cult comedy Cougar Town into a troubled time slot, it will make that predictable amount of money.
Finally, as a simple creative matter, let’s ask one question: Does the cable drama model still have room to surprise us? Serialized shows about antiheroes who could do anything at any time were the foundation for HBO, FX, and AMC, but those sorts of shows increasingly feel hidebound. Can Boardwalk Empire ever be anything other than a show that sits in the shadow of The Sopranos? Can AMC ever come up with a show to match its first two dramas, or is it endlessly doomed to make series that possess the trappings of quality dramas, but none of the soul? (Looking at you, The Killing.) And can FX leverage its terrific development streak of the past few years into another hit series, particularly when every new show it put on the air this past TV season flopped? Just as network dramas grew tired from playing the same chords over and over, cable is increasingly unable to find new ways to tell stories about antiheroes. The networks have tried a variety of series about people trying to do the right thing—FX’s Terriers and Lights Out, AMC’s Rubicon—but outside of HBO’s Game Of Thrones (where the definition of “right” remains nebulous), all have quickly flopped. The cable audience wants light, quirky dramas (like those on USA) or it wants dark, despairing ones driven by antiheroes (like The Sopranos or The Shield), but both types of show have increasingly run out of creative gas.
None of this is to suggest that cable is doomed and the broadcast networks are certain to regain their prominence. If the current trends continue as they are, then yes, that will be the case, at least creatively. But television is a business driven by massive breakout hits, and those can pop up anywhere, at any time. All of this could be rendered moot this fall by the massive, out-of-the-box success of HBO’s Luck, a challenging drama about horse racing from David Milch, or some unexpected show on some unexpected cable network no one will see coming. And yet at the same time, the current economics of creative TV have swung back in favor of the broadcast networks, which have always had an advantage at producing comedy (which is on a creative upswing) and now possess better ways to monetize small audiences. Cable, meanwhile, is at a crossroads. On one hand is a rich tradition of complex, fascinating series; on the other hand is the easy money to be made by churning out a million Burn Notice or The Closer clones. In the next five years, we’ll find out which way these networks will head.