Where cable programming was once firmly on the fringe, it’s now a growing favorite in the zeitgeist, with bold and provocative dramatic programming providing ample watercooler conversation and arguably eclipsing broadcast television in its overall creative excellence.
But if some wonder whether broadcast TV has abdicated its long-standing reign, or whether it will try to emulate what’s made cable’s fortunes rise, those on both sides of the divide contend that’s a false dichotomy.
Instead, they tout equal-opportunity television, where cable and broadcast follow two distinct business models that fulfill different entertainment needs among American audiences.
“We know that we need to appeal to a broad audience,” says CBS senior veep Christina Davis, who, along with Robert Zotnowski, is co-head of drama development at the Eye. “It’s actually been a really winning strategy for us.
“Truthfully, our goal is to program for viewers and not necessarily Emmys, although we do feel that we have content worthy of Emmys. I don’t think ratings success and Emmy-worthiness are mutually exclusive.”
At the same time, Davis and Zotnowski cite such offerings as “The Mentalist,” the “CSI” franchise and upcoming fall debuter “The Good Wife” as proof that broadcast is moving in a darker, more daring direction.
“They’re functioning at the highest possible level in their craft,” Zotnowski says of the series. “We want to have dramas that are relatable and compelling. In that respect, both cable and broadcast aspire to the same thing. When you find your success on either cable or broadcast, there are probably more similarities than differences.”
Adds Davis: “So many of our successful dramas are syndicated and working also on cable.”
Director Matt Earl Beesley (“CSI: Miami”) feels a spark of critical promise in the upcoming autumn series.
“I see a shift,” he says of network’s new edgier efforts. “A few pilots — like Mike Kelley’s ‘The Beautiful Life’ (debuting on CW this fall) — are getting into that edgy realm, and I think that’s very exciting.”
Beesley applauds CBS’ programming of Kelley’s now-canceled drama “Swingtown” as a ballsy broadcast move. “Unfortunately, it wound up during the summer, so it didn’t really get to find its audience,” he laments of the defunct series exploring sexual mores in the 1970s, “but I think that it was a real important effort.”
Where broadcast can do better, suggests Beesley, is by including more character-driven shows among its roster of plot-driven procedural vehicles.
“The character work that’s being done in cable get deeper into the individuals,” he notes, citing “Californication” and “Entourage” as examples where “it’s about following the different characters and what they’re going through.”
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan acknowledges that where cable excels in acclaim, it lags in audience.
“It’s a tendency where we feel we’re doing great critical work and the great networks are not,” he says, “but we should never forget the big networks created television. There’s a lot that network TV does right. They get the maximum number of eyeballs, so there are lessons to be learned from that. I don’t ever want network to go away, but I also want cable to increase its viewership. I desire for folks all over the country to be watching (‘Breaking Bad’).”
AMC prexy Charles Collier further debunks any myth about cable-bias snobbery, declaring, “I am not a broadcast basher.” In fact, with its mission to be “distinct,” as opposed to the network goal to “build its empire,” AMC rarely competes with broadcast companies to telecast the same shows.
“We don’t have an ounce of cynicism about the viewer,” assures Collier. “We’re obviously looking to build the biggest audiences.”
As for FCC regulations undercutting broadcast efforts to sharpen the edge factor, Collier points out that even AMC adheres to affiliate agreements. “You tell the best story not through salaciousness,” he affirms, “but through drama and flawed characters and climax.”
Overall, “Ghost Whisperer” exec producers Ian Sander and Kim Moses maintain that awards, while a boon, are not the sole standards by which to assess cable and network dramatic fare.
“As a producer and a director, I love getting awards,” admits Emmy winner Sander (“I’ll Fly Away”), “but it’s not the only way to measure success. Should you judge a show by the Emmys it’s won or by the 12 million people watching it? Obviously, it would be nice if we could do both.”