This has been some summer for TV dramas.
If you’ve been watching the broadcast networks, that makes no sense to you. TV’s big dogs are twiddling around with game shows and talent contests. But out on cable, and just basic cable, there’s some good television going on.
Here’s a partial list of the new stuff: “Saving Grace” on TNT; “Damages” on FX; “Mad Men” on AMC; “Burn Notice” on USA; “Army Wives” and “State of Mind” on Lifetime, and “Kill Point” on Spike TV.
And here are some of the stars involved: Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Kim Delaney, Lili Taylor, John Leguizamo.
That doesn’t include the continuing cable series airing this summer like TNT’s “The Closer” and FX’s “Rescue Me.” That’s about as much excitement as you’ll find in the networks’ new fall seasons, and the success rate is already way higher. All of the new cable shows are drawing solid ratings or good reviews, and most have been renewed.
And notice what some of these networks are. Lifetime, home of women-in-peril movies and sap. Spike, ground zero for testosterone-fueled anything. Their new shows have the old Lifetime and Spike DNA, but they’re still better than anything either network has done in a while.
So, what’s going on here?
It all starts with two facts about summer. First, fewer people watch TV when the weather is good and the days are longer. Plus, the networks can’t afford to make new scripted dramas and comedies all year long, so summer - when TV use is down - seems a good time to bail and go with cheaper game and reality shows.
Cable networks, on the other hand, can live with lower ratings. They spend less on their original shows - usually that means fewer big-money stars and faster production schedules - and they air a lot of repeat programming. (They also get revenue from the cable systems who carry them, like Comcast, but the class on TV financing is for another day.)
In any case, TNT, USA and the others can survive with smaller audiences. If 3 or 4 million people watch a basic cable show, that’s a good payday. If 4 million viewers watch “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” which was about the number for ABC’s good-hearted reality series this summer, it’s a disaster.
And because the broadcast nets don’t air many original dramas in the summer, that lets the cable folks launch their new shows with much less competition.
The last piece of the picture is that the bar has been raised on cable, by shows like “The Closer” or FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” by pay-cable channels HBO and Showtime, and by all of the competition out in the culture for viewer attention and entertainment dollars.
“Cable has kind of changed the landscape,” Hunter, star of “Saving Grace,” told TV critics last month. “It happens to be made for less money. And so risks can be greater because less cash is at risk. And it’s not in competition with the networks. So every single thing about it adds up for the people who were wanting to take some chances.”
Specifically, that means, say, AMC, doesn’t have to try to make a show with a broad enough appeal to draw 10 million-plus viewers. And often, broad appeal means rounding off some of the sharper edges and themes of a series.
Instead, AMC is a smaller cable network that just needs to give people a new reason to tune in, and it’s doing that with “Mad Men,” a smart, moody period drama about Madison Avenue in 1960. (The show is averaging a bit more than 1 million viewers, which is still a big increase over anything AMC has aired recently.)
Matt Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” wrote for HBO’s “The Sopranos” and told TV critics he believes his show has benefited from the HBO-like patience and creative freedom AMC showed Weiner when he was developing the new series.
“These people, they really like this thing,” Weiner said. “They want to do a show based on quality, and when you hear them say the word `quality,’ they’re not saying it in that fake way ... They really mean it.”
Stars like “State of Mind’s” Taylor, “Damages’” Close, and Hunter all told critics separately during the TV Critics Association press tour in July that the writing on some cable shows is actually better than anything they’re offered in the feature world, and as Close said, it’s always a good career move to “go where the writing is.”
And because the cable networks are trying to be original and challenging - to offer something different from the often-safer network fare - a lot of the new cable dramas feature anti-heroes like Close’s and Hunter’s characters. And they feature women leads who are over 40, or in Close’s case, 60.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big one is that many of the cable shows are just trying to break old molds. Taylor said that TV and movies used to work off of basic formulas, which made for simple, unrealistic women characters. But the demand for better TV forced writers to break out, and female characters become “less two-dimensional and more complicated.”
Less two-dimensional and more complicated pretty much describes the entire crop of new cable shows.
Successful is another description, and that’s got the broadcast networks thinking they can’t give away their summer audiences much longer.
ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson told TV critics that maybe the networks have to revamp their annual plans. “We’d like to get some original scripted (shows), both drama and comedy, on next summer.”