It is easy to pick on the networks. They are the rich kids with no integrity.
No, but seriously.
It is true that in dramas, the commercial television networks have taken a drubbing in the Emmy Award competition from the likes of HBO (The Sopranos), Showtime (Homeland) and the small but still mighty AMC (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) and most likely they will never return to the Emmy dominance that they once enjoyed when there was no alternative competition.
The Pre-Cable Days:
“Who did the networks beat this year?”
“What do you mean?”
Networks do fare better with their comedies, though I am uncertain why that is. I imagine it has something to do with the sensibility (Read: age) of the Emmy Award voters. What I know for sure is that if a network drama is nominated for an Emmy these days, their producers need to think twice before bothering renting a tuxedo.
‘Cause it ain’t gonna happen.
I had a friend once – this was in the pre-Sopranos era – who complained to me that she had this great idea for a television series but that none of the networks were interested in it. Her idea was smart, it was original, it was sophisticated. Why on earth, she wondered, would the networks turn it down?
My response was my favorite kind of response – the “Blurted Assertion.” To me, “Blurted Assertions” are the “Gold Standard” of insight and illumination, bursting from an uncensored place inside me free premeditation or personal advantage.
High praise for the “Blurted Assertion”, but no more than it appropriately deserves.
Why were the commercial networks uninterested in my friend’s non-mainstream series idea? Because, I spontaneously observed,
“Network television is Burger King.”
Now, quickly before I am indelibly stamped a culinary “Elitist”, I have no idea if Burger King is any good. I have only eaten there once, when we were filming “off the lot” and it was lunchtime and somebody said, “How about Burger King?” and we went there. That was the only time I ever experienced Burger King cuisine. And it was memorably unmemorable.
A significant distinction from, “And I determined never to eat at Burger King again!”
What I meant by “Network television is Burger King” is that network programming is developed specifically for mass appeal. Although today, as I mentioned last time, the network viewing audience has eroded by two-thirds, the remainder is still “the masses”, and the programs are intentionally designed not to offend whoever’s left. (For fear the eroding audience might erode even further.)
Unlike cable, where extremes of action, language and behavior attract “niche- programming appealing” subscribers, network television – Think: the “Department Store of Television Programming” – due to their viewers’ delicate sensibilities, offense-averse sponsors, the FCC which polices the networks (but not cable) and/or all three – the networks are compelled to keep their assembled inventory unthreatening and bland.
Consider the regularly most watched network series NCIS – which I have never seen – versus cable’s much-praised former series The Wire – which I have also never seen.
And you call yourself an expert on television?
I know, I’m a fraud. But anyway… compare those two shows. Both of them are “Cop Shows”, but the cable incarnation was gritty and riddled with corruption, as opposed to its network television counterpart, where “crossing the line” means one of the investigators forgot to shave.
Although all television programs are now delivered… I don’t know how, but pretty much the same way, it is misleading for us to think, from a programming standpoint, that they are legitimately comparable.
Creatively, network writer/producers are working, if not with one hand behind their backs, then at least with a number of fingers tied behind their backs, and possibly a palm. Because of its business model – and the consequences that inexorably ensue – the toilers on network TV are prohibited from delivering their finest possible work.
Imagine the difference between two paintings, one picture limited to a handful of colors, the other allowed an unlimited palette.
Which painting will feel richer and more satisfyingly executed?
Okay, here comes the “Let’s give the networks a break” section.
I once wrote about an imagined response to Bill O’Reilly’s going on The View and asserting that “The Muslims attacked on 9/11.” (Resulting in two of The View’s “regulars” angrily exiting the stage in protest.)
My imagined response to this kerfuffle went, in part, like this:
“Cable news is a business. To succeed in the business of cable news, it is necessary to speak in inflammatory extremes. When Bill O’Reilly asserts that ‘The Muslims attacked us on 9/11”, don’t blame Bill O’Reilly. He is simply doing his job.”
Ditto with the television networks.
To succeed financially, network television is a required to offer a specific kind of programming, which, due to its business model limitations, emerges unrisky and uninteresting. It is therefore unfair to criticize the networks for airing shows that two thirds of the television viewing public has rejected as being entirely unworthy their time.
They are simply doing their jobs.
Obligatory Addendum: Though I continually complained about them, I enjoyed all my success under those network “business model limitations.” Through a combination of training and temperament, that was exactly where I fit.