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Challenge of Cable Forces Broadcast Dramas to Raise Their Game

Broadcast dramas raise their game in response to cable

The complex characters, salty dialogue and high production values of cable shows draw a lot of attention, leaving broadcast series with a reputation for tameness.

But several broadcast dramas prove that good writing is network-agnostic.

Despite bigger episode orders, fewer movie stars and a mandate to appeal to a broad audience, shows like CBS’ “The Good Wife” and NBC’s “Parenthood,” “The Blacklist” and “Hannibal” are doing it cable-style, positioning themselves as prestige series that revel in a moral ambiguity. Even the Peacock’s primetime perennial “Law & Order: SVU” experienced something of a creative renaissance this year by coloring outside its established lines.

However, “Hannibal” creator Bryan Fuller says he doesn’t think of his series in terms of broadcast or cable.
“I’m just approaching the show as ‘Hannibal,’ ” Fuller says.

“You have to consider yourself the first person in the audience, and just say, ‘What would excite me as a television viewer?’ ”

Fuller adds that NBC agreeing to looser standards-and-practices constraints helps him maintain the show’s macabre luster in its 10 p.m. slot. But both “SVU’s” Warren Leight and “The Good Wife’s” Robert King say standards-and-practices don’t factor into their creative processes much.

“Sometimes you feel like standards-and-practices is kind of silly about not seeing the top of the crack of a butt on a mannequin — not even a real person,” King explains. “The real problem is being able to use language.”

Leight agrees that language, particularly of the four-letter kind, highlights one of the biggest differences between broadcast and cable shows.

“Every once in a while, we have these fantastic, fun conversations: ‘So we can’t say “blow job,” but we can say “doing the nasty.”’ “In some ways, those limitations get us to come up with more creative lines.”

Dealing with those challenges is just part of the writers’ room process, and Leight isn’t so sure “SVU” would work as well if it were written for cable.

“On some cable networks there would be pressure to make the disturbing scenes, quote, ‘hotter’ on some level. I don’t like graphic violence, and I especially don’t want people getting the wrong impression about graphic sexual violence,” Leight says.

Broadcast programming has also embraced character arcs and serialization over self-contained storylines, and that has helped spark creativity. Leight says working on HBO’s “In Treatment” and FX’s “Lights Out” gave him “a taste of arc.”

“It’s a natural form of storytelling. It’s why I think so many writers are now attracted to TV. You can sustain things.”
Sustaining a concept through each season was built into the “Hannibal” model, according to Fuller.

“I knew that I fundamentally wanted to change (the show) every season, so it was its own kind of enclosed novel,” he says. “It was a very clear beginning, middle and end to (each) season. That also makes it hard to define — it’s not necessarily a forensic thriller; it’s more of a psychological horror film that is 13 hours long.”

Although the network-vs.-cable discussion tends to lean toward the negative for broadcasters, King is quick to point out that all is not what it seems.

“A lot of cable shows are riding on the coattails of four or five — maybe eight — excellent cable shows,” King says. “If we’re honest with ourselves, cable has given talented showrunners the ability to do amazing work, but there’s also a lot of shows that are either too pretentious or too slow.”

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