“It’s a cable show on broadcast television.” “We’re doing a cable show on NBC and no one’s bothering us.” “It’s hard to do a cable show on ABC and have it survive.” These are the kinds of things we hear when it comes to the development and execution of “high risk” series on broadcast television. Over the years, the likes of CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and even The CW have spent much of their time doing everything possible to make their networks more like cable – which is where the brunt of “quality” content seems to live on the small screen.
However, what this pursuit has led to isn’t a swarm of mouth-dropping series that leave us begging for more, rather it’s left a sea of unworthy (and in a lot of cases, canceled) "high-concept" network shows for audiences to painfully swallow night after night between Sunday viewings of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Homeland. Fans of Awake, FlashForward, Revolution, Lone Star, or any number of now-dead shows know exactly what we're talking about.
However, what broadcast fails to realize is it has cards of its own to play, and in 2015 - as we head into a pilot development season dominated by pre-established IPs – it needs to start playing those cards before it’s too late to turn back.
How Cable Networks Do It
Regardless of any perceived advantage that exists thanks to a lack of regulation, the biggest factor that spawned cable’s massive wave of quality development was one of necessity and accident. In cable – unless you’re HBO – money’s extremely tight, and that forces one to make cost saving decisions based on the funds available. Cable doesn’t have tens of millions of dollars to drop on every show that comes through its pipeline, so it must decide which scripts are going to get the majority of its time, and if that means the others fall off, so be it. When you’re working with those kinds of restraints, every series HAS to be a home run, no matter what. In cable, there’s no such thing as simply getting on first base.
Part of why Breaking Bad even exists is because established networks such as FX and HBO said no and AMC needed an original program – something that, at that time, was in short supply because more established competitors took all the “good stuff.” The same can also be said of The Shield, which only landed at FX because the Fox subsidiary had nothing to lose. This isn’t how broadcast operates.
Broadcast doesn’t have highly limited funds and 1-2 nights of original programming it has to fill. It has nearly unlimited funds that need to fill 5-6 nights a week, and three of the five networks have to do it for three hours a night. Needless to say, that’s a lot of time to fill, and what the powers that be don’t comprehend is the idea that expansion isn’t a burden; it’s a heavenly gift. Why? Because it leaves room for experimentation.
For every Breaking Bad the The Shield, there’s a Galyntine (a post-apocalyptic drama directed by Greg Nicotero and EPd by Ridley Scott for AMC) and Open (a “sexuality drama” created and executive produced by American Horror Story's Ryan Murphy for HBO). Because (most of) cable operates on the idea of limited schedules, where original programming only airs a couple nights a week, the potential for interesting shows to see the light of day becomes far less than that of broadcast - which is, again, something the guys in charge of the big five aren’t considering.
How Broadcast COULD Be Doing It
Within the confines of broadcast television exists room to, essentially, throw programming at the wall to see what sticks. However, the business model, as it exists, is making that idea impossible. Whenever a broadcast network tries to do something even remotely risky, all it takes to scare off a great show is, much like Twitter, for a single affiliate to stand-up and say “we and our audience will be offended by this content and demand it not be shown.” Unfortunately, it's often a vocal minority which holds perceived power, and shows like Hannibal continue to take heat for darker or riskier content, while other series are scared off completely. But how much control do these affiliates really have? What are their options when they claim, “we don’t like what you’re doing, so we’re not going to air it.”
Beyond the potential of being in breach of contract, what happens if one does follow through? Who loses more? The mothership network that misses out on a small area of the total U.S., or the affiliate that loses the gain of sports broadcasting, especially if the network happens to have something like the Super Bowl that year – as was the case with NBC leading up to this February. No affiliate was ever going to cut ties with NBC over Hannibal when it meant also losing the biggest television event of the year – and then losing it again three years later.
The big five can experiment. They can play. They can stand-up for themselves. However, because they exist in a mode of thinking that believes cable’s dominance comes from a pushing of boundaries and lack of FCC oversight - instead of a lack of money and ability to program 6 nights a week - audiences continue to suffer. There’s no reason we have to live in a world where nothing but movie adaptations dominate the pilot cycle among the big five TV Networks.
In 2015, this is what broadcast has to learn: it isn’t cable, it’s broadcast - and there are reasons to be happy about that.