EMMYS: Is It Broadcast vs. Cable, or Quantity vs. Quality?

Broadcast vs cable quantity vs quality

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.

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  1. Aimee says:

    I think quantity is an issue but not because of the number of episodes made but rather the number of shows period. People complain about all the crap that is on television but the fact is there are a lot of really great shows as well. A LOT. It is just a sad fact that many worthy shows and performances will not get nominated because there simply isn’t room on the ballot.

  2. lellingw says:

    Broadcast is not bad because it can’t swear as much or have nudity, The Good Wife proves that, but because it usually depends solely on advertisers and the “widest” audience it can get. Most of the top 10 shows in ratings are absolutely horrible shows which would have been relegated to a 4-6 pm time slot on Saturdays and Sundays in earlier decades. Networks have become the venue for people who don’t pay much attention to TV and can’t follow stories from week to week. The ads take up so much space during the hour or half hour that a viewer forgets what they were watching and often changes the channel. The long seasons do have an affect on show quality, that’s why Moonlighting got blasted for being unable to follow a schedule and finally crashed and burned. Lost and Dangerous Housewives which began with huge prospects and positive reviews fell quickly into formats that lost a serious viewer during the second season. They also lacked a long term plan for story line. Breaking Bad worked because the needs were clear and finite. The producers had some handle on the storyline even if everything wasn’t worked out. The Sopranos seem to lose more and more with each new season because their primary storyline was told in the first. So cable isn’t immune from trouble but people get what they pay for and expect. Cable channels require subscribers to pay more money and people have higher expectations of them. Broadcast has lower expectations of viewers and the viewers have lower expectations of it. That is what the primary difference is

  3. Jacques Strappe says:

    What would the Games of Thrones be without all the gratuitous tits, gratuitous violent rape (consensual or not) and gratuitous bloody deaths? Gratuitously canceled after one season, that’s what or moved over to PBS. There should be separate Emmy awards for cable and broadcast. While acting in any televised program is an apples to apples comparison, for the most part, it is sometimes challenging to overlook the provocative dialogue, nudity and subject matter of cable programming vs broadcast which could influence the acting honors unfairly toward cable. So, give out two awards for every category, one for broadcast and one for cable.

  4. tony says:

    I remember this kefuffle years ago that shows like Buffy got passed up despite critical acclaim. Meanwhile shows like Arrested Development was swamped in awards yet didn’t get do well numbers wise.

    Awards shows are pointless. Do a good job, make happy fans, stay on air. That’ll do you better in the long run.

    And as for Good Wife I love it. But the AMC bashing was odd, so I googled to see what it was about. And learnt THAT spoiler. So I’m not too amused with the writers trying to get clever in this one.

  5. Larry Deutchman says:

    This raises a pet peeve of mine. For several years I have found a kind of auto-elitism in the lack of broadcast nominees in the drama performance categories. It has become almost a reflex that (with rare exception) the nominees hail almost exclusively from cable. Are the performances better in cable? I can’t see that being the case. There was a time (even after cable was eligible) when the performers on broadcast dramas were routinely nominated — think E.R., Picket Fences, 24, Lost, The Practice, and numerous others.

    In recent years, magnificent performances have been criminally overlooked on Parenthood, Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, the list goes on. The names of these actors didn’t even come up during the entire awards season as contenders — or even as longshots! Instead the focus has been on the performances on the “buzz” cable and online dramas. While the nature of the material they perform may be different, the performances on these broadcast dramas are worthy of serious consideration at the very least. But the trade media that so lead awards voters don’t even include them in the consideration pool.

    I feel like Andy Rooney whining about this, but it just seems a shame that if your performance isn’t for the cool team, it doesn’t get noticed. It doesn’t say a lot about our criteria for quality when it comes to performing.

    • Jedi77 says:

      Welcome to the Oscars. Awards and quality is hard, and often it’s more about politics.
      But TGW crying unfair? Get over it. Nobody cares. Make a show that becomes a cultural phenomenon, and we’ll talk. Till then, shut the hell up.
      And BTW where are The Walking Dead nominations?

      • “But TGW crying unfair? Get over it. Nobody cares. Make a show that becomes a cultural phenomenon, and we’ll talk. Till then, shut the hell up.”

        What does being “a cultural phenomenon” have to do with whether or not a show should be nominated in in terms of its QUALITY in various categories. By that logic, any show that gets the SNL treatment, obsessive coverage by Vulture and podcasts by nerd-like comedians, should be nominated for an Emmy. By the way, shows that are “cultural phenomenons” already have awards by those standards: The People’s Choice.

        “The Good Wife’s” argument is not whining; in fact, I think it’s quite fair at least as an element of consideration. TGW — which very few would argie is not one of the single best series on television, broadcast or cable — MAINTAINS that quality over the course of 2-3 times the length of many of its cable brethren. The way things have been over the last few years a narrative has taken hold that “Cable Is Better,” despite evidence that there are a lot of sh***y cable shows. Yet when it comes to recognizing “the best,” the narrative takes over in the press and the voters virtually shutting out several equally worthy broadcast series or potential nominees. It would be as if you were going up for a performance review at your job for a nice raise, and you go consistently high marks for outperforming almost all of your peers working 50 weeks out of the year, almost always performing above the expectations of your bosses and getting industry accolades in your field. However, you’re passed for the sexier candidate who comes in only 12 weeks a year, doing essentially the same job but with a few creative liberties you aren’t allowed. If you said, “But look at the fact I come in 50 weeks a year, could you take a look at that?” would it be “whining” or speaking to the facts of the situation? I say it is the latter. I’m not saying that is the sole metric that should be measured, but if it were my employee as an employer I’m going to look at all the facts and not just because the employee has a reputation for flashing boobs and cussing every once in a while to the delight of many of my clients.

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