“The Good Wife” triggered discussion with an Emmy campaign mailer predicated on the fact the CBS series produces far more episodes (22 a season) than its likely cable rivals. But is quantity a legitimate factor in assessing quality — or indeed, even the most significant aspect of the broadcast-cable creative divide?
For years the media’s focus, not surprisingly, was on more permissive content standards, and the sex, violence and profanity available especially in pay-cable fare. Broadcast networks puzzled over the issue, as famously occurred when then-NBC President Robert Wright sent around an episode of “The Sopranos” soliciting feedback about the implications of such an explicit program — one NBC couldn’t possibly air — being so widely praised and popular.
More recently, however, the debate — and questions about whether broadcast and cable occupy a level awards playing field — has moved beyond dirty words and naked people to become more nuanced. Although there are obvious advantages to being able to indulge in an expletive-laden tirade on “Veep” or bare breasts on “Game of Thrones,” that’s probably not in the top three points of differentiation setting cable apart.
Two key elements — time and money — are admittedly both related to the 22 episodes vs. seven (“Mad Men”), eight (“Breaking Bad,” “True Detective”), 10 (“Game of Thrones”) or even 12 or 13 (“Homeland,” “House of Cards”) cited by “The Good Wife’s” team.
A series like “Game of Thrones” operates with a much more expansive budget than the average TV drama, but industry folk say the real luxury is additional time — shooting episodes for twice as long as the eight-day shoots required to keep a broadcast hour on schedule. That means more latitude to tinker with production and less rush in assembling scripts.
Another disparity also involves time, but in a different way — namely, the length of the episodes themselves. Pay-cable comedies and dramas regularly run close to their allotted 30 or 60 minutes, respectively, and even basic cable series are super-sized, letting “Sons of Anarchy” or “The Americans” seemingly run as long as that week’s story requires.
The Big Four, by contrast, have seen their hours steadily shrink as they cram more commercial and promotional time into them. Dramas now run about 42 minutes in most instances — slashed more than 10% from 1990s levels — meaning an hour of “Scandal” usually contains about 40% less actual content than one of “Boardwalk Empire” or “Masters of Sex.”
Pay cable, at least, is also spared from concerns that certain hot-button themes or subject matter might alarm advertisers — less of an issue than it once was, perhaps, but still a consideration for network series without the mega-hit credentials to weather the apparatus designed to police and curb them.
These facets ultimately speak to a larger matter: the sense that cable series are allowed to bend rules in the service of storytelling, without facing as many arbitrary restrictions as their broadcast brethren. And while that doesn’t make producing a good show easy, it does keep the traditional distractions that can nibble away at quality and blunt ambition to a minimum.
It’s perhaps understandable that those responsible for “The Good Wife” (which, it should be noted, has cleverly spoofed the bleakness of cable fare within the show) might have a bit of a chip on its shoulder about the premium competition, especially when key Emmy categories have at times come to resemble the since-defunct CableACE Awards. And surely, there’s something to be said for consistency and durability.
Will the argument sway the Emmy jury? That remains to be seen. But as befits today’s surplus of great dramas, getting a handle on the evidence requires more than just a simple by-the-numbers approach.