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Cable vs. Broadcast TV: Learning to Love the Low End of the Dial

Broadcast standards may be more constricting, but the shows can still be bleeping entertaining

I’ve recently rekindled a strained professional relationship: I’m watching scripted series on the Big Four networks again.

This development surprises no one more than me, since I had admittedly become a cable and pay TV snob. Like so many others in the biz, I was convinced that quality shows reside deep on my TV channel grid and beyond: “Homeland” on Showtime, “Veep” on HBO, “Breaking Bad” (dearly departed) on AMC and “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix.

Why bother with the low end of the dial?

On cable and premium series, there is violence (ouch), sex (ooh), and profanity (f@#$ yeah). For someone with an edgier aesthetic like myself — I do wear a lot spiked accessories — cable and pay TV have been the bad-ass kids at the party, the Big Four serving as the butt of jokes as they struggle to mimic the sensibilities of programs like “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men.”

While I may be willing to sully my intellect with trashy reality shows, I expected my scripted fare to be like fine wine — not Franzia.

I tweeted pessimistically while watching “The Blacklist’s” second episode that the NBC show felt like an unsatisfying date coming on the heels of a heart-wrenching breakup. The “breakup” I was referring to was the series finale of “Breaking Bad” the night before, which left everything in the entertainment landscape pale by comparison.

And therein lied my problem: By placing those two shows on the same playing field, I was not only holding “Blacklist” to standards it would not be able to meet (broadcast has the word “broad” in it for a reason), but I was also undercutting my enjoyment of a perfectly decent freshman drama by comparing it with a masterwork of television.

Once I stopped hoping for something like “Breaking Bad” out of “Blacklist,” I actually began to dig the program, with its quick pacing and dramatic turns. By embracing this “fun ride” type of series, I’ve also discovered (and binge-viewed) “Scandal,” and loved every sudsy second. In terms of comedies, I’ve recommended ABC’s “The Goldbergs” to friends, and after screening the pilot, I’ll be checking out more episodes of Fox’s midseason military comedy “Enlisted.”

Is it a coincidence that my return to network TV (at least some of it) is coinciding with the Big Four enjoying a small ratings bounce in the early going of this season (compared with last fall)? Probably, but it’s still telling about the direction of network TV programming.

During a panel sesh at Variety’s Emmy Elite showrunner’s breakfast last month, Jack Burditt of “30 Rock” said that he wished, as a broadcast TV scribe, he could have “one ‘fuck’ per season.” It was a revelatory comment. On programs like “Veep,” where profanity is the native tongue, laughs can be drawn from four-letter-word tirades. Similarly, high-stakes drama on “Game of Thrones” can be pumped out with slit throats and graphic sex.

Writing for the content-sensitive (and FCC regulated) Big Four networks is in some ways the bigger creative challenge, and one I believe deserves respect. How much harder is it to entice viewers who are accustomed to HBO standards for dramatic intensity and bawdy comedy?

A balance seems to be emerging on the part of scribes of Big Four series to deliver broad programs that boast edge or intellectual chops, but at the end of the day, it’s up to those holding the remote to decide to ease back on the cable TV comparisons. I’ve come to realize you have to adjust your expectations accordingly, depending on the platform.

The broadcast nets have managed to loop this pay cable fangirl back into their primetime lineups, after some attitude-adjustment on my part. And it was worth it — after all, I’m being entertained by these shows.

Hopefully, others who share my cable-Netflix bias can loosen up a bit, pour a glass of midpriced merlot and drink to that.

(Pictured: Broadcast network shows such as NBC’s “The Blacklist” are stepping up their game to appeal to viewers who watch programs on cable and pay TV webs.)

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