Are Network Dramas Dead?
This year’s Emmys marked the first time not a single network show was nominated in the Best Drama category. For the most part, the networks have only themselves to blame. Obviously the rise of competition from cable changed the landscape of scripted television. But while cable has diversified, the networks have homogenized. It seems like the only shows on network television are all the same kind – procedurals (typically defined as cop, medical, and/or legal shows). And with the rise of the Law & Order, CSI and NCIS franchises, not only are all the shows the same kind, they’re different versions of the same show. Are we seeing the death of the network drama? What happened? Should they just quit trying and give up?
The main problem is that networks simply have to work under a different model than cable. The free TV networks (and for purposes of this article, that means the big four – ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC – no offense, CW) are solely supported by advertising. As long as that remains the case, the networks will forever be at the mercy of those advertisers and, by extension, the ratings that advertisers rely on. Basic cable such as FX, USA, TNT, etc., also rely on advertiser support and ratings, but not nearly to the extent that the networks do – because you’re paying Time Warner or Comcast or whoever for access, which helps support those channels. The further away channels get from advertising, i.e., premium pay channels such as HBO and Showtime, which have none, the more freedom those channels have to work independently.
So by the very nature of their business, the networks are shackled. They’re the landlines where the rest of the world has moved to cellular. In fairness, the advertisers pay huge sums, so it’s reasonable that they expect a lot. But what they want a lot of is eyeballs, not risk. And a great show – a Lost or 24 – takes a lot of risk. So proven formulas such as the procedurals are what get recycled: ER begets Grey’s Anatomy begets Private Practice, Hill Street Blues begets NYPD Blue begets Rookie Blue. Like their major studio counterparts in film, the broadcast networks rely on what has worked in the past to dictate what they will do in the future. There’s simply too much money at stake to take a chance on something new.
I offer as proof this fall’s lineup: out of 31 shows airing this fall, over half are procedurals. But what is more telling is to look at the returning shows – 19 of the 31 are returning and of those 19, 14 of them – nearly 75% – are procedurals. (We the viewers have to shoulder some of the blame there – clearly the procedural formula works and we like it.) But this also highlights another problem the networks face – the competition is fierce. Out of 12 new dramas last year, only five survived. As a result, this year there are only 8 new dramas and some of them are already in trouble.
Of course the economics and statistical analysis only tells part of the story. Why are the network dramas falling so short in terms of quality? TNT’s Southland is a procedural and it’s great. It even started out on NBC, but couldn’t stay there. Why? Again, just like the movie studios, all too often creative decisions are being made not by creators, but instead by business and marketing executives. It becomes a question not of what’s good or what will stand the test of time, but what will sell. And with costs rising (networks can spend millions on a pilot alone), everyone’s looking to share the cost and thus the risk, which creates further quality control problems.
It’s an industry cliché that writing for network television is writing by committee. I can tell you from experience that’s largely true. Take a show like last year’s short-lived The Playboy Club. Looking to cash in on the success of Mad Men, all the networks were looking for 60s themed shows. The Playboy Club was NBC’s (ABC that same year had the also short-lived PanAm), but the show originated at Fox. Fox became the producing studio (paying the writers’ and producers’ fees) and NBC the network (who either shoulders production costs or kicks back advertiser money). With two companies involved, the writers and creators of the show now have two bosses, both with equal say. So with every script, for every episode, first Fox gets to add their two cents and then NBC. Taking creative license as way of explanation, let’s say Fox’s notes are: “make it fun and sexy,” and NBC’s are “make it dark and gritty.” NBC and Fox don’t care if their notes contradict each other – that’s the writer’s problem. And when it can’t be solved, what you end up with is what The Playboy Club became: a weird hybrid that never really came together. It was part Playboy bunnies in the care-free early 60s but also had a mob murder subplot that felt like a different show.
This is what kills so many shows and that process of studio notes followed by network notes happens at every stage from the scripts to the shooting to the final edits. Still, there is some hope for the networks. They’re already starting to catch on a little bit, following cable’s lead where they can. For instance, lots of shows now have shorter seasons, 13 episodes (the cable standard) as opposed to the network standard of 22. This way, storylines don’t have to be as dragged out and high points can be gotten to quicker. They could do more (like eliminating this cycle of only debuting new shows at certain times – fall and spring – allowing themselves more time over the full year to better develop new material), but they will always be bound to the higher powers of the advertising and their corporate parents. As long as that’s the case, it’s not a question of should the networks even try at creating Emmy-caliber dramas, it’s that they can’t.