The Good Show? Broadcast, Cable, Quality, and The Good Wife

Curator's Note

Thinking through a show is a hallmark of the cable programming we’ve come to expect over the past decade. Except that The Good Wife is on CBS, a broadcast network. The show's (supposed) cable-like emphasis on clever storytelling and character has not gone unnoticed. Maureen Ryan, then writing for the Chicago Tribune, says, "The show allows fans of both meaty procedural fare and cable-style complexity to have their cake and eat it too." And Ryan's correct. Very few shows in the broadcast line-up aim for the kind of emotional and character complexity that we tend to associate with cable productions (as Ryan does in that quote).

Perhaps this ambition isn't enough for a show to be great? The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman, writing about the show's second season, argues that while the show is "very good" by broadcast standards, it cannot possibly compete with cable. Goodman sees broadcast's emphasis to be on what he calls "'big tent' programming" aimed at broad demos. This goal, he argues, prevents networks such as CBS from cable-level "artistic triumphs."

Tellingly, Goodman fails to specify that when he says "cable offerings," he (probably) means HBO and AMC. He likely does not mean USA, Disney, Syfy, or A&E — all of which air and produce programming that Goodman would (probably) not stick under the "artistic triumphs" heading. Goodman falls victim to a cultural divide that has been created and promoted aggressively by certain cable channels for the sake of market differentiation and recruiting the most desireable (read: affluent) viewers. And while cable has certainly been able to do things that broadcast hasn't been able to do, broadcast networks are proving themselves capable of engaging in those same practices, and doing them just as well.

In this final scene from "Hybristophilia" (s01ep22) Alicia’s cautiousness and suspicion bleeds through. While she shakes hands and presumably makes small talk, it's clear that Alicia wants nothing to do with these men, least of all because it would help Peter (who is probably courting them for support). The show never stated that Alicia wanted to avoid this overlap between the personal and the private. Instead, the show allows the audience to interpret this through Alicia, forcing the audience to think through the show, and not just about the show.


You raise some important issues in this post, Noel, particularly the sliding scale of "quality" regarding broadcast and cable.  I appreciate your attention to the constructedness of the discourse of cable quality by pointing out some cable channels that don't necessarily market to the quality audience.  The Good Wife is a problematic show to characterize on this sliding scale for all the reasons you suggest as well as due to some of its major genre characteristics: particularly its family melodrama foundation and its procedural-like episodic plots.  Can we separate out the show's acting (certainly the area in which it has thus far been most recognized as "quality"), from its broadcast home and its genre(s)?

First, Charlotte, thanks for organizing this excellent week! I'm very excited about it, and the upcoming posts. Now to your question.

I'm glad you bring up the genre issues, as it's another aspect that I think leaves the show underestimated or somewhat dismissed by some critics, in particular the procedural elements.

The show's ability to balance its genres, including the ones you mention and all its others, is what makes it more deft and engaging than some other more revered cable programs. It's hard to tell a narratively complicated story; it's harder still to service different story demands as well as TGW is able to do.

I'll also add that the two genres you mention help give the show a sense of timeliness and immediacy that could otherwise get lost if it was just about a woman's search for herself. For instance, the show's procedural aspects earned it an award from Human Rights First for focusing on various contemporary human rights issues.

Likewise the show's family melodrama plots help point to economic issues (though in a way that isn't totally on-target) and the challenges parents face in raising two kids who are dealing with a strain on their household and the outlets that the family seeks to deal with it (religion, rebellious girlfriends, improtu-dancing tutors) that speak to current societal trends.

Ultimately, the show is able to do these things because of its broadcast home, because of the broadcast network's  desire to speak to multiple audiences within a single show. In this sense, the very thing that Goodman uses to provide a  snobbish dismissal, is one of the show's greatest strengths.

In my opinion, of course.

Noel, thanks for a great post to start us off. I especially like the point you make regarding Goodman's claims about cable programming in that he is likely referring to cable channels like HBO and Showtime, which have a more specialized, self-selected audience of paying viewers, more resources and more freedom (content-wise and in other ways) to create the kinds of shows they program. That said, I wonder if the cable-is-better argument isn't a little specious in other ways, since, if we exclude pay-cable, a lot of the shows considered "quality" are or were on network television (The West Wing, Law and Order, Lost, 30 Rock, etc.; of course, there are exceptions to this, like Mad Men). While cable allows for greater freedom (from censors, from some concern with ratings and demographics), network stations have far greater viewership, and I think there's been a huge push in the past decade or two to give that wide viewership something worth seeing when it comes to quality drama. (On the other hand, there's also a huge push towards reality TV and competition programming, which is whole other ball of wax on the opposite end of the spectrum!)

Hi Aviva,

Thanks for leaving a comment!

You won't get any argument from me on the "broadcast does quality!" front. However, I've seen some academics create tiers of sort when it comes even to quality (as Goodman actually does). While I can't give you the essay since I'm at work, the McCabe/Akass edited collection on quality TV included an essay that deals with The West Wing as an example of broadcast quality while Six Feet Under is art TV that the (pay) cable channels do, which feeds back into Goodman's high-minded talk about "artistic triumphs". I've tried to complicate even this weird tiering in a conference presentation because I'm not a fan of what feels like evaluating shows on a curve because they're on broadcast / giving (pay) cable programming a pass because, well, they're "not TV."

And I agree that there's been a broadcast push for quality dramas, though the networks seem to think that to be quality they need to ape elements from recent successes (serial mythologies or, this season, the 1960s) and that audiences will flock to their programs. or that they need to be "edgier" (whatever that means). I think that The Good Wife and Chicago Code are both recent examples of shows that take/took their procedural settings (lawyers and cops) and try/tried to do more with them (and, on a cable level, though I haven't seen it, Justified from what I understand fits here too).

And I like your point about censorship freedom in cable, but I feel like some cable channels have moved to just flaunting their ability to do whatever they want and have that be assumed as quality (I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones and American Horror Story (though I don't think anyone is confusing AHS with quality, but you get my point)). But broadcast can be sexy (hello season premiere of The Good Wife!) because of restraints: more with less.

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