Is the Source of Today's TV Programming More Important to Us Than the Actual Programs?

As more and more original cable programming dominates, it's time to ponder a new double standard in what we think makes for good TV.

Just over 20 years ago, I remember sitting in a class at Southern Illinois University, in a grad program then called “Telecommunications”, where the instructor discussed the eminent demise of the big three networks. Two decades on, of course, if the nets are dying it’s a surely a slow, slow death.

Just as the big Hollywood studios (or most of them, anyway) have survived their long-predicted ends to each celebrate 75, 80 or more years in business, I don’t see ABC, CBS or NBC going out of business anytime soon. Nor should they.

We too often take for granted what the original big three networks still provide to us: daily sun-up to sundown programming, primetime, daytime, morning, late night). They even continue to give us sports coverage, some children’s entertainment and, most importantly, impartial and accurate daily news coverage.

The niche-oriented world of cable TV might be fun and useful for some sort of boutique-like shopping excursion, but it’s to the networks—the Wal-Marts of the airwaves—that we always return.

Still, network dominance has greatly eroded over the past few years and no greater evidence of this can be found than with the most recent Emmy nominations. Of the six series nominated in the outstanding drama category, not one aired on any of the big three networks. (Fox was also excluded, though PBS was represented thanks to Downton Abbey.) Of the six series nominated for outstanding comedy program, half of them were made-for-cable productions (Veep, Louie, and Girls).

In some ways, cable’s emergence as a quality programming powerhouse isn’t at all surprising. Cable gains a major leg up in that department, thanks to the extremely truncated length of their programming “seasons”. A season of a cable drama or comedy can be all of 12 episodes long, a fraction of the length that even a broadcast network mid-season replacement usually airs.

Cases in point: last season American Horror Story was 12 episodes long; ABC’s Nashville’s season was 21 episodes long. The upcoming season of HBO’s Girls will be 12 episodes long. In contrast, last season CBS’s Big Bang Theory aired 23 episodes.

Fewer episodes means that greater care—in writing, in production—can be taken with each installment, leaving the broadcast networks, regularly producing almost double the number of episodes as most cable shows, at a distinct disadvantage.

The lower workload necessary for a “season” of cable episodes also means that these series can often attract a level of talent that might not normally be willing to tie themselves down to the nine-month-plus commitment usually required by a broadcast network series. Writers and directors that usually prefer the often less time-sensitive work pace of film, are willing to “slum” in TV, if they can get the creative control and attention to detail they are more used to in their “day job.” Cable provides that opportunity, thus also leading to the major role that such channels as FX, AMC, HBO and Showtime are playing in this, the so-called second “Golden Age” of TV.

But even if cable will continue to have a lock on the Emmys in the major program categories for the foreseeable future (due to the reasons stated above), this doesn’t fully explain why so many of the acting categories are also becoming increasingly dominated by the cable set as well. Again from the most recent Emmy nominations:

of the six actresses nominated for lead in a comedy, only Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were from broadcast series.

  • of the six actors nominated for lead in a comedy, only Jim Parsons (the eventual winner) and Alec Baldwin were from broadcast series.

  • of the seven women nominated as a lead in a drama series, only two (Connie Britton and Kerry Washington) were on broadcast series.

  • and of the six men nominated in the lead actor-drama category, none were from any non-cable program.

This is not to say that those performers on cable programs aren’t doing exception work, I just find it interesting that so much of the work on broadcast channels is being overlooked.

In my opinion, no list of great performances by actresses on primetime is ever complete without the inclusion of Mariska Hargitay. Similarly, Jake Johnson of FOX’s New Girl seems overdue for some Emmy acknowledgement. And then there’s the entire cast of ABC’s The Middle. Of course, quality performances can even be given in mediocre shows. I was never a huge fan of Married…With Children but I recognize the expertise that Ed O’Neill always brought to his role as Al Bundy.

All this unequally distributed Emmy and critical attention makes me begin to wonder if we are not all, collectively, falling under a new and inaccurate falsity: an assumption of “Oh, it’s on cable, it must be good.” It’s an attitude and a level of snobbery that once only existed in regard to PBS, but which has now spread to both basic and pay channels. After all, as the channel itself would be happy to tell you, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”

Maybe it’s simply a part of human nature, an assumption far older than television. We value something more when we actually have to pay for it rather than when we just get it, more or less, for “free” (although of course, nothing is free).

Granted, sometimes even cable can lay a goose egg. HBO’s Bored to Death endured for several seasons but garnered little critical acclaim during its tenure. HBO’s Luck with Dustin Hoffman ended after just nine episodes (albeit amid charges of animal cruelty) and TNT’s Saving Grace with Holly Hunter aired 46 episodes but never caught on in the way a Nurse Jackie or some other cable entries have done.

Even with these missteps though the success rate of cable’s original programming is striking and its critical acceptance is at near fervor levels. But let us not grow elitist in our views. There’s a lot of TV out there and more to come (thank you Netflix) and that means that there’s actually a lot of good TV out there, too. And good is good regardless of its delivery system.

Cable TV may have several things in its favor in terms of manufacturing quality visual stories, but it hasn't completely cornered the market…yet. It's the job of TV critics—and viewers—to give every 30 minute or 60 minute show its own fair shake even if it does come from an “old school” TV network and get preceded by Wheel of Fortune in most local markets.

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