A look at broadcast networks, cable

Low risk of an early ax, greater creative freedom and more breathing room at launch.

What’s not to like?

With cable continually ascending as a viable choice for viewers nationwide, many question whether broadcast is still television’s Holy Grail.

“It’s amazing how many producers, talent and others say (the opposite),” ABC Family president Paul Lee observes. “They know we’re going to give (a show) more space. They know we’re going to stick with it longer. Our budgets may be lower than broadcast, but we make a big commitment.”

Producers still prize which network their show is on — they just care a lot less about what channel that network is on your remote.

“Each one of these basic cable networks has a very specific identity,” says “The Closer” executive producer Michael M. Robin. “I’d be really interested to see what Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme would do for FX. I’d be really interested to see what they might do for TNT.” Producer Steven Bochco is sticking with cable, even though his Iraq War drama “Over There” failed to connect with auds two season ago on FX. He has a courtroom drama in development at TNT, where original procedurals such as “The Closer” have helped brand the “We Know Drama” network.

And Showtime, which has captured attention with dark comedy “Weeds” and therapist-driven “Huff,” recently announced it was developing a Steven Spielberg-produced half-hour comedy featuring a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder.

“I think cable networks, because they’re often (marketed) demographically to an audience target, tend to be a little more focused in what they put on,” says Zach Van Amburg, co-president of Sony Pictures Television programming and production.

Dating back well over a decade, with subscriber-based HBO arguably leading the way, cable has been a haven for experimentation and risk-taking.

Airing “The Sopranos” on broadcast, for example, would have been a “bad, bad idea,” says creator David Chase.”That would have been a case of expectations that cancel each other out — disappointed expectations on everyone’s side. They would have expected something manageable, clear and clean; I would have expected something … like we have now.”

In more recent years, this sanctuary has expanded to include ad-supported basic cable webs such as FX.

“For ‘Rescue Me,’ we had multiple offers from both cable and broadcast networks,” before deciding that FX was the best partner, Van Amburg says.

With low ratings expectations and fewer programs in development, cable essentially presented one major hurdle for a show — get on the air. Midseason cancellations on cable are about as rare as profanity on the Disney Channel. In contrast, a broadcast program is in peril from the moment it premieres if viewers don’t tune in right away.

To its advantage, broadcast can offer more money upfront and wider audience exposure. But now, those cards are being trumped by such increased backend rewards as DVD sales, making a guaranteed season more enticing.

“The thing that’s very good for a studio is that it’s likely you’re going to stick around (on cable), and you’re actually going to grow an archive of your show,” says Robin. “And your show is likely to be a business as opposed to a loss leader.”

With the fundamentals in place, the side benefits of cable are looking less like tradeoffs and more like perks. Cable’s abbreviated seasons (often six to 13 episodes) and lower financial commitments reduce the need for a major star to launch a show. At the same time, the short seasons entice name actors by freeing them to pursue film and theater projects for half the year or more.

Writers often don’t mind being short-order cooks, either.

“One thing that is a sort of secret in the success in some of the cable shows is what I call the forced story compression,” Robin says. “Your characters have to go through big events in shorter amounts of time, meaning that each episode is going to end up being packed with more dynamite.”

None of this is to say broadcast is going to retreat into a cave. Many still aspire to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.

“Frankly, some of the new shows in broadcast aren’t the traditional broadcast show,” Sony Pictures TV co-president of programming and production Jamie Erlicht says. “They are branching out and taking chances.”

When Ben Silverman of Reveille Prods. (“The Office,” “Ugly Betty”) asked screenwriter Michael Hirst (Cate Blanchett starrer “Elizabeth”) to turn an English dynasty into a TV soap opera, the plan was to take “The Tudors” to CBS.

However, when the Eye passed on the project (“I was told that the guys in gray suits said, ‘We’re never going to do historical dramas and we’re not going to start now,” Hirst says), Showtime emerged as much more than a consolation prize.

“We went to Showtime,” Hirst reports, “and they liked what I had written, but they said, ‘We’re a cable network, so we can push things — we’re not under the same restraints. So if you want to make it more volatile, if you’re comfortable with that, we can handle that.’ “

To say the least, that’s something creative types are willing to hear.

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