Southland has been, in a weird way, kind of a lucky show. It isn’t a great show, and if NBC had put the second season on at 10 p.m. as originally intended, it’s quite easy to imagine that it wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Instead, NBC’s decision to cancel it (without showing the 13-episode second season they’d already ordered) turned it into a cause celebre, a symbol of NBC’s ineptitude and what the Leno experiment was doing to scripted programming. It got the show a new life on cable, which it wouldn’t have had if it had just died a quiet death on a broadcast network. And John Wells, the veteran producer who hasn’t had a lot of success since his ’90s hot streak — ER, The West Wing, Third Watch — now looks like a rebel against the NBC establishment, rather than a producer who isn’t as reliable a hit-maker as he once was.
And Wells is taking advantage of his renewed fame, as he should be, to talk about what ails network television. His new interview with Forbes magazine has some good observations on the state of TV today. Some of the observations, obviously, are a bit self-serving: of course he preferred it when the networks were forced to buy all their shows from outside companies, because he works for Warner Brothers and makes his living selling shows to broadcast networks that don’t own them. (As he points out, outside suppliers will never completely die out because “they all buy some things from other people because they want to spread the risk on certain kind of shows. They tend to buy the very expensive shows from other suppliers so that the deficits can be handled by others.”) But he is right that the competition from cable has created a situation where much of network TV programming is — even compared to the past — relentlessly middlebrow and middle-of-the-road. Which in turn creates a situation John Wells, a reliable supplier of first-rate middlebrow entertainment, is too highbrow for the broadcast networks.
So now increasingly that kind of adult programming has migrated to basic and pay cable, which has really left the broadcast networks needing to work harder and harder to aggregate a large–and what I would consider vaguely blobby–middle audience. Frankly if you look at it in the terms of retailing, broadcast television was equivalent to the old Sears. They had high-end stuff and low-end stuff and everything in the middle–the old line at NBC was “mass and class.” You had the more high-end, classy programming and then you had mass entertainment. And the high-end or class part of that equation has in large part moved to cable.
I’d add that cable programming has also provided competition at the low end, so that networks stay away from certain types of shows (light action, videotaped sitcom) that are now mostly confined to basic cable. That’s an added factor in pushing everything on network TV toward the mushy middle.