Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Why The Networks Can Never Compete With Cable"

You may already know this, I can’t tell, because I don’t know you, and I could be, and have been in the past, egregiously erroneous in my assumptions.  I had a special friend once who knew virtually nothing about show business or sports, and, as a result, she was constantly asking me questions and seeking clarifications about what seemed obvious, and it was – to me, but not to her. 

This imbalance in understanding taught me to take nothing for granted, which can lead me, at times, to over-clarify, so that nobody’s left in the dark.  If my doing that annoys you, and you feel talked down to, don’t blame me.  Blame my special friend.

Always the gentleman, Earlo.

Thank you.  Anyway, pursuant to a post I intended to write but instead veered off in a different direction and never returned to what I’d originally had in mind, I will now write what I had intended to write then, but didn’t.  Not really a problem.  You get two posts for the price of free.


In the most recent Emmy Awards competition, the commercial networks – CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX – were, for the first time in history, nominated for no “Best Drama” or “Best Miniseries” awards.  Let me emphasize that through repetition – the commercial networks were entirely shut out in the nominations for awards for excellence in the categories of drama and miniseries.  Rubbing it in one last time, every single nomination and, consequently, the subsequent awards went to dramatic programs and miniseries, not on commercial television, but broadcast exclusively on cable.

You got it?

The networks did hold their own in comedies, though not, I believe, because they were superior to cable comedies, but because they were less naked and obscene.  The Emmy voters, who generally skew older, feel more comfortable with sexual innuendo, however sleazy and unsubtle, than they are with the actual…”Whoop! – there it is!” 

Once, that cohort passes on and is replaced, however, I predict that cable television will sweep the comedy awards as well, the networks attending the Emmys strictly for the gift bags, and an in-person glimpse of a Kardashian.  

The prizes will all go to cable programming. 

(There may be a time when, being tired of getting thoroughly blitzed, the networks will mount a competing awards show, handing out the coveted Lessies, signifying, “We’re less good than cable, but we’d really like an award.”)

Why can’t the commercial networks compete with cable?  If you know the answer, this is your stop, and we’ll see you tomorrow.  If you don’t, and you’re interested, on we go.

The problem lies with the differing manner in which commercial television and cable programming are delivered, and the contrasting business models of the two broadcast entities.  Allow me to explain, as best I can.

Commercial television programs are said to be broadcast over “the public airwaves.”  Cable programming arrives from another source, possibly bounced off a satellite, though I may be entirely off the mark here.  I am still learning how to work our new toaster.

Why do the different “delivery systems” matter?  Because when any program is broadcast over “the public airwaves” – the “public airwaves” being frequencies the government gave the networks for free in exchange for airtime set aside for public service programming (that they don’t do anymore) – the public is entitled to a say concerning content. 

Ergo, the FCC – the Federal Communications Commission – which, among other duties, polices commercial television on the publics’ behalf, imposing punitive fines when someone inadvertently ad-libs an expletive, or the top of their dress falls off. 

Supplementing the FCC are private “We’ll have none of that on our public airwaves” advocacy groups who promote organized letter-writing campaigns complaining about shows some of which had not yet even been aired but they had heard about them and they hated them, sight unseen.

Early on, the responsibility for shows was in the hands of sponsors, who singlehandedly underwrote entire series, hence the likes of The U.S. Steel Hour, The Voice of Firestone and General Electric Presents.  Sponsors packaged and produced the shows, sold them to the networks, and every commercial on them involved – relative to the above examples – steel, tires or light bulbs.

The sponsors controlled hiring, and the content of the programming.  Which turned out to be a problem.  First of all, fearful of offending their customers, sponsors insisted that the shows they bankrolled be “tapioca safe.”

Secondly, during the McCarthy blacklisting era, sponsors were threatened with mass boycotts of their products, the “Red Scare” enthusiasts demanding that anyone working on their shows be summarily dismissed if their names turned up on a list of “Commie-Sympathizing Undesirables.”
Thirdly, certain sponsors – one, I recall, was Revlon – colluded in deceiving the public by slipping contestants the answers to the questions in their big-money prime-time quiz shows – See:  the insightful movie Quiz Show – in order to manipulate the outcomes of the competitions.  To this day, I have no idea if psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers really knew about boxing, or simply memorized the name “Jersey Joe” Walcott.
As a result of such controversies, the networks relieved sponsors of their “oversight” duties and assumed unilateral control over all content broadcast under their corporate banner.  Which helped very little.  The advocacy groups simply redirected their letter-writing barrage to the networks, who, seeking the widest possible viewership and no negative publicity, performed barely less conservatively than their predecessors. 
Today, focusing on attracting a more permissive younger viewership, the networks’ “Standards and Practices” departments have loosened the reins somewhat, opening the door, most recently, to “vagino-centric” comedy.  Still, in the arguably more sensitive areas involving “political correctness”, very little has substantially changed.  
Contrasting with the networks, whose profits accrue from selling airtime to sponsors, cable makes its money selling subscriptions, freeing it from the stranglehold of commercial crowd-pleasing.  Plus – and this, frankly, confuses me – cable programming is immune to FCC oversight, because cable shows are not delivered over the “public airwaves.”  (The confusing part is, isn’t everything delivered via cable these days?) 
As a result of their differing methods of operation, it is my view that commercial network television can never – and will never – be able to compete qualitatively with cable.
The poor networks never saw it coming.  I was once on a panel including network and studio executives – this was in the late eighties – where I asserted that gifted and passionate writers would willingly sacrifice a more lucrative payday for creative control of their projects, and I got laughed at, the “Business Affairs” manager of the studio I worked at shouting, “Have your agent give me a call!” 
It turns out, I was right.
Dismissing the idea that writers would be willing to take less to make shows they are passionate to produce – and also because they are structurally incapable of doing otherwise – the commercial networks lost the most talented series creators of their era, and cable gained shows like The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood, Dexter, Weeds, Girls, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, South Park, Louie C.K., Nurse Jackie, and Homeland, to name just fourteen.
Of course, not every writer has what it takes to jump the fence, and color successfully outside the commercial network-determined guidelines.  Tomorrow, I will introduce you to a writer who couldn’t.


Mac said...

So more is better! And not the race-to-the-bottom that people fear. We get stuff from FX, AMC, HBO etc in the UK, and it kicketh the backside of any UK-produced drama. I hate to say it, but it's true.

3Y Fit 32 said...

And me thinks that English comedies kicketh the arses of American comedies (in general). Probably too much of a generalization, but at first glance, that's my opinion.

Incidentally, I did swear off cable a few years ago...09, I think. My monthly bill had gone to $113. and I could no longer justify spending that much money to channel surf. So I bought an antenna and voila, I'm back to the 60s! For nothing. I pick up a dozen channels, incl. PBS and the big 3, plus an assortment of garbage. For nothing. I'm a big fan of Netflix and an even bigger fan of reading. The only time I miss cable...baseball season. But wait, there's more! A modest fee to MLB.TV allows me to watch any game on the MLB schedule, excluding the team that is closest to my residence. I will never give another penny to Comcast or any satellite company. (No cable and yet there's still an abundance of Law & Order episodes on the tube!)

Hank Gillette said...

I'm not sure how much of a sacrifice Larry David made to do "Curb Your Enthusiasm", since he'd already made more money than anyone could reasonably spend working on network television.