The Real Problem With Network TV
We are experiencing what critics and entertainment historians call The Second Golden Age of Television. What was once a maligned medium, known for its poorer quality of acting and writing, and was clearly the lesser art when compared to film, is now the medium that many talents are flocking to.
Television is known for having a much more difficult schedule everyone who works in it, and many felt it was never quite worth the effort. Often TV stars would use the experience as a way to jump into films. If you were an established movie star and you went to TV it was usually an indication that your career was in trouble. That’s not to say there weren’t good shows before the Golden Age, but there was a certain stigma to it. If film was considered a great meal, TV was considered scrapple. Film was art; TV was exploitation.
HBO changed all that. The one-two punch of The Sopranos and Oz premiered at the end of the 90s changed the way we experienced television. While film is the director’s medium, television belongs to the writers. They set the tone of the series, and the directors often follow their notes. It wasn’t just set dressing and camera work, however, it was content. You have the growth of TV anti-heroes with complex stories and character arcs. From The Sopranos and on we’ve seen a major shift in the landscape of the medium. More series have taken to the idea of shortened seasons and serialized arcs. Network TV has sort of embraced the idea, but not quite, and it’s to their detriment.
Network TV is censored heavily and their content often suffers for it. No sex, limited swearing, and long commercial breaks often keep the viewer off balance. It’s often difficult to keep a series steady when tense moments are broken by a god awful Sonic commercials. It’s also difficult to write real emotional or realistic character interactions when certain words are not allowed to be used. It can make the dialogue then feel stilted and fake and suddenly you’re taken out of the moment and you remember it’s just a TV show.
Look, I’m not saying get rid of commercials. I understand why they’re there and why they’re important, and in the days of p2p and DVRs, they’re a minor nuisance at best. It’s always about content. For most series, 22 episodes a season is just too large a number. As any showrunner could attest, this can lead to creative problems. Not enough time spent developing stories lead to plot holes and contrivances; more episodes means more content, and when there isn’t enough that leads to padding or forcing the series in another direction to justify the 22-episode order.
Cop shows are a dime a dozen on television but when you look at the best ones—The Shield, The Wire and True Detective—you see that their cousins on network TV just don’t match up. Premium—and even basic cable—channels offer more creative freedom to series creators and give them the chance to add an air of reality—if it’s something as simple as characters being allowed to smoke and swear in their interactions, or something more complex like fewer episodes which can mean better stories.
Take The Flash for instance. It’s a new show and has been successful both critically and commercially so far. In its first episodes it has established its lead as well as several ongoing threads that will take it through the course of its first season and maybe the rest of the series. However, there is only so much sneaking around and cryptic dialogue Harrison Wells can mutter before we get fed up. Moreover, The Flash has plenty of enemies but to pad out 22 episodes, there will be instances where instead of fighting The Rogues or the Reverse Flash he’ll be fighting the Mist and Turtle Man while the audience fights boredom and indifference. If you want to take a scary (possible) look at the future, think about Smallville. Twenty-two episodes a season for 10 seasons. That wouldn’t happen on cable. Network TV loves dynasties—many episodes, many seasons. Cable is just more efficient. Usually.
With cable series dominating award shows and social media, network TV is slowly adapting to the times. Slowly. The prestige format has made its way to FOX with The Following running 15 episodes a season; 24: Live Another Day ran for 12 episodes, and the current miniseries Gracepoint will run for 10. Long struggling NBC has also dabbled in truncated seasons—Community ran for the cable standard 13 episodes during its two years (and will do so again when it airs its new season on Yahoo) as well as other NBC series like Awake, Crossbones and Hannibal.
Both Hannibal and Awake represent two interesting pieces in modern television. As many critics pointed out, these were cable shows that for some reason somehow were airing on network television. They were high-concept series that did/do middling as far as ratings are concerned. Awake was cancelled after one season, while the still-struggling Hannibal exists on the event horizon of cancellation as it enters its third season. The knife, as they say, is always at their throats. Ratings-wise, network TV tends to draw more viewers so their standards are higher. The ratings that Hannibal pulls in averages at 2.3 million viewers a week. On network TV, they’re on the bubble. Cable would have called it a certified hit. At 2.3 million viewers, Hannibal also has had higher ratings than Breaking Bad did for its first four seasons. When reflecting, Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan said that if the series had aired on network TV they would have been cancelled before the pilot had finished airing. Breaking Bad is considered to be one of the best television series of all time.
The likelihood of a low-1rated but critically beloved show airing on a network platform is small; it used to be impossible. There’s progress in that. There’s a victory in there. Some companies will forgo high rated programs for ones that are critically adored because it adds a level of prestige to the channel, could potentially generate awards from said series, and attract more showrunners with unique ideas because this network’s reputation is that they’re willing to take risks—like what The Shield and Nip/Tuck did for FX and what Mad Men and Breaking Bad did for AMC.
Hannibal is a great example of what network can do, and still won’t do. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has made an eerie, dark and artistically brutal television series that has no reason to be on NBC. The studio has allowed him enough breathing room to do almost anything. While the camera isn’t allowed to meditate too long on the crime scenes (that’s what the DVDs are for), most of everything is still quite visible. Of course, as Fuller has referenced numerous times, the network is terrified of anything resembling nudity and often scenes are darkened in the editing room to make the gore a little less obvious. Half measures are the curse of this series. They’re clearly getting away with more than any other show on network TV but there are still points that the censors will not budge from. It’s understandable, and I’m thankful that we’re getting what we are, but it brings up an interesting question: Why this show? Why is it okay to have this much blood and violence on this show, but not others on the same network? Why not other shows on other networks? If it couldn’t be done before 2012, how come it was fine in 2013? It’s the fact that these mandates by the FCC or whoever are so arbitrary is what makes it so frustrating. There was a time when even a married couple could not be shown in bed together. Nowadays, it’s very different. Why? What was the catalyst that made one censor say no and the other say yes?
The fact is, it’s just about money. If a studio wants it badly enough, they’ll get it. In Hannibal’s case if shows like Dexter and The Walking Dead hadn’t been as critically acclaimed as they were, there is no way Fuller’s series would be allowed to get away with the things it does. While NBC has no problem airing an episode of Hannibal in which a man rip himself out of the inside of a horse (long story) but on Constantine—another NBC series—the eponymous character cannot be seen smoking a cigarette despite it being one of the cornerstones of the character. Turn the channel over, and Jax on Sons of Anarchy can be seen pulling on Marlboros. Turn on another and you’ll see the men and women of SC&P smoking Lucky Strikes like their lives depended on it.
As I said, the changes are slow in coming.
The last ten years, cable was the gun pressed against the back of network TV’s head. Cable’s promise was of something we hadn’t seen before—or at least more of the things we like. Network TV has been slow in reacting to this, but now things are changing again. Video on Demand has beads on both network and cable. Netflix and Amazon Prime allow binge watching—no commercials, no waiting a week in between episodes. When Netflix airs a new season of House of Cards, it gives you access to the entire thing all at once. With Hannibal we have to wait seven agonizing days. Same with True Detective. But here, again, is where cable has managed to stay competitive. They launched their own VoD programs with their entire catalogue available to their customers. Showtime on Demand, HBO on Demand, FX on Demand. Now there’s talk of HBO-Go being provided to anyone willing to pay for it—they don’t need a regular subscription to HBO first (or at all). Some network companies have attempted to follow suit with their own On Demand programs. Unfortunately, they’re bare bones, and not exactly racking in the dollars. Instead, some networks will sell a show to Hulu—where you can watch every single episode of that said show…but with just as many commercials. So then, what’s the difference? Why would a viewer actually pay money to Hulu to watch a show with commercials?
Streaming is clearly the future of broadcasting and even network TV has begun to hedge their bets, but it is a question if their content is actually worth saving and worth watching?