As their presence at the Emmys dwindled to a whisper on the drama front, the major networks consoled themselves by noting that by catering to a broader audience, they’re playing a different game than their premium or even basic-cable competitors.
Yet the next few months might go a long way toward potentially redefining what has been perceived as the broadcast-cable creative divide.
One of the popular memes from last month’s TV Critics Assn. tour, uttered by journalists and network reps alike, was that certain new series were “cable-like” in tone and execution. Foremost on the list were NBC’s “The Slap,” a perspective-shifting adaptation of a fine Australian drama, boasting a stellar cast; ABC’s “American Crime,” John Ridley’s drama tracing a murder’s ripple effects from multiple angles; and to a lesser degree, Fox’s post-apocalyptic comedy “The Last Man on Earth,” primarily due to its subject matter and melancholy vibe.
Of course, networks have done this dance before, usually without much to show for it ratings-wise. Moreover, the heralded standouts from the new season are hardly mold-breaking exercises, but rather serve old wine in new bottles. Take Fox’s “Empire,” which is about as conventional as serialized drama gets — “Dynasty” with a music-industry backdrop, while disproportionately attracting the under-served African-American audience.
What might be different this time is how the networks’ ratings demands and expectations — as well as the ways in which TV is consumed — are changing. As it stands, cable series like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” have demonstrated (as “The Sopranos” did in its day) that massive audiences aren’t just for the major broadcasters anymore. Even stodgy old PBS has chimed in to echo the point, spectacularly, with the ongoing popularity of “Downton Abbey.”
At the same time, networks have recognized the benefits of appointment viewing and programs that generate passion among a loyal base. That value is heightened by fragmentation, with only about two dozen broadcast programs currently averaging better than a 2 same-day rating among adults age 18-49 — the primary ad-selling demographic — and just a half-dozen cracking 3% by that measure.
While it’s significant that shows can survive despite appealing to a smaller piece of the population, another factor contributing to the changing metrics that define success is a shifting revenue model. Retransmission payments from multichannel video programming distributors have made the networks less wholly reliant on advertising. So have digital streaming and international sales, now that broadcasters own so much of their content.
As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told analysts last year, “Non-advertising revenue streams are playing a bigger and bigger role in our results, and they will continue to do so in the years to come.”
Notably, just as the networks may be reexamining the creative parameters of their product, some premium outlets have blurred the lines by acquiring or developing decidedly network-like shows.
Consider Netflix, which — after building its reputation on pay-TV-style fare and then fruitlessly yelling “Marco Polo” — rescued the NBC pilot “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which, its merits notwithstanding, certainly feels like a network comedy. AMC, meanwhile, is honoring “Walking Dead” with the “Law & Order”/”CSI” treatment, which means — what else? — unleashing a spinoff.
Because the major networks still air considerably more original programming each week than even the most ambitious cable operations, these steps reflect an evolution, not a wholesale makeover, and there will surely continue to be a heavy diet of procedurals and reality shows and traditional sitcoms on their menus.
Still, the lesson of premium cable has been that quality can flourish once unfettered of the need to please everybody. And for the networks, a positive report card on “American Crime” or “The Slap” could be the encouraging wake-up call to take more of those chances.