From Four to Ten: A New Lens for Scripted TV

Curator's Note

It’s “premiere week” for the Big Four! This is usually an exciting time for TV fans. Television series are blessed with the gloss of the new; hope is in the air!

So it’s telling how HBO’s Sopranos follow-up, Boardwalk Empire, stole the buzz leading up to this week, even as NBC breathlessly promoted their Event. It’s yet another example of how the “big four” have now become at least ten in scripted market, as HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, TNT, even Starz churn out quality primetime TV.

For years conventional wisdom has been telling us broadcasters can’t compete for buzzworthy shows. Usually I’d say that’s simplistic. But looking at my list of must-sees, I’d say the truism rings true. Sure, I’ll watch The Event, with its mysterious marketing, and Undercovers, with its feverish pace and daring “post-racial” duo. Lone Star, Running Wilde, My Generation, Outsourced, $#*! My Dad Says and others will all get my attention for various reasons, but I can hardly say they have me pumped.

If “premiere week” has really lost its fire, the networks can’t shoulder all the blame. Ambitious programming like the decade-defining Lost and 24 or underappreciated Flash Forward and Kings are increasingly rare and risky. As the networks see what’s working on cable – from conventional sitcoms to TNT and USA’s procedurals – my gut feeling tells me they’ll be trying less to impress us and more to just please.

Can we really blame them? Not to overstretch the broadcast vs. cable debate, but primetime premieres have been dogged by competition since the 1990s, as their share of the audience dwindled and as the number of networks producing content rose. They’re not the only players in town.

Today the Big Four churn out hours and hours of primetime programming, but we’ve come to expect quality from a broader range of networks. Year round, we’re entertained by a growing number of players. We get quality from at least ten. The CW guns for the young. USA pleases us all summer. Would-be music channels MTV and BET are ordering scripts with newfound zeal, alongside other niche channels from Lifetime to TVOne.

All this activity puts a damper on premiere week, diluting the excitement, no matter how many times we see promos for The Event. TV has never been better, but premiere week is increasingly less, well, eventful.


You're very right that for quality, compelling scripted storytelling, we more often have to turn to cable rather than network TV, which is so often lackluster. But I think the answer to your question about the nets ("Can we really blame them") is... yes.

Yes, we can blame them for responding to market fragmentation from cable outlets and other competitive elements with lowest-common-denominator, hackneyed sitcoms ("According to Jim," anyone?), derivative dramas ("The Simpsons" once did a joke about "Law & Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit"), and product-placement-driven shlock reality shows. They could have chosen to invest in better, more creative storytelling, and risk-taking, diverse casting. They have not done so. When rarely they do, hits happen ("Lost," "Ugly Betty") on network TV, proving it's not impossible. But it's all too rare, because network programmers are too afraid of risk-taking, too afraid of diversity, and since the Telecom Act of 1996, too myopically profit-oriented to consider quality a primary requirement for a primetime slot.

I can't wait for 'Law & Order: EIU'! 'Law & Order: Parking Patrol' was an instant classic.

I think you're right. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because it actually looked like they were changing this week. 'The Event' was good but not amazing. 'Lone Star' was unnecessarily dull. 'Undercovers' was my last hope; it was brave to cast two black leads for an essentially non-black show. But while it was well-written and action-packed, they chose two pretty uninteresting black people! Same problem with 'Lone Star'; James Wolk is cute but not complicated. A bunch of the new shows exhibit a bad habit: giving us what we like (pretty, friendly people) without making it compelling, or interesting. Steve Buscemi could never get his own network show. That's a shame.

The ratings keep heading south, so I imagine if they don't get it soon, they'll be forced to become another HBO, Showtime or FX, if only because those channels will start pulling in better numbers!

Intriguing points about cable narrowing the ratings margin with broadcast.  I thought it was interesting how many of the cable network's summer series seemed like such perfect fits for broadcast, but after The Big Four's premiere week of lackluster programs, I'm wondering if it's less of a move towards the middle and more of a move towards the safe (a.k.a. mediocre)?  Especially stark in comparison to HBO's Boardwalk Empire, as you note.   Perhaps the decline this season in innovation and provocation is due to recent failures such as Kings.  Michael Z. Newman's piece today on Running Wilde comments on the risk taken by Fox after Arrested Development's mediocre ratings performance, but after watching the pilot, I find it the redheaded stepchild of A.D.  And I was equally disappointed with Abrams' latest vehicle The Undercovers.  I found it a less funny incarnation of Chuck and a less suspenseful action show than 24.   AMC's Mad Men is still performing well, despite the broadcast premiere week, and Boardwalk was renewed (unsurprisingly) the day after its pilot aired.  With the increase in scripted programming choices, is the range between "quality" and "safe" widening?  If so, what do we, as media and industry scholars, make of this trend?  What does it say about the changing structure and priorities of the television industry?  

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