Cable Networks Have Hits and Flops Now

I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I took a slightly different meaning from this piece, where Tim Goodman argues that basic cable’s quality boom is in danger of being choked off by reality TV. The idea being that reality shows are at once the most popular and cheap fare on cable, and that the incentive for cable networks to produce high-quality scripted programming is being reduced.

The key case in this article, as in many recent articles, is FX, which has introduced two straight prestigious, critically-acclaimed dramas that completely failed to find an audience (Terriers and Lights Out). John Landgraf, the head of FX, has been sounding very frustrated lately with the change in the cable landscape, which has not only led to several high-profile flops but made it unprofitable to do the kind of complex serialized drama that he obviously likes. (Landgraf famously gave Damages a two-season renewal after its not-particularly-popular first season, a decision that proved financially unwise — and, considering that the show had nowhere to go after its exciting first season, probably creatively unwise as well.) Though the network has its share of critical and popular successes, like Justified, it’s no longer where it was a few years ago, when The Shield and Sons of Anarchy touched off serious talk of FX becoming the HBO of basic cable.

Even AMC, which pretty much is the HBO of basic cable, had to cancel the prestigious Rubicon, is having trouble getting another season of Mad Men off the ground, and broke through to mainstream success based on arguably (I said arguably) its creatively weakest show to date, The Walking Dead. Meanwhile the big basic cable success stories often involve shows that are not better-quality than broadcast network fare, and we’re not just talking about reality shows here. We’re talking about hits like The Game, Jersey Shore, Hot in Cleveland, Tosh.0 and Pretty Little Liars. All these shows are the flagship shows of their networks; all of them offer something you can’t get on the broadcast networks — but they don’t make a case for basic cable being a place for creative risk-taking. They seem more like what cable shows have traditionally been: cheaper, niche-ier versions of broadcast shows. At least FX’s new flagship show, Justified, is closer to the ideal vision of what cable should be than those shows (or maybe even than HBO’s current flagship, True Blood). But it’s still a show that was specifically created to be a lighter, more accessible show than what FX had been doing before; it’s not meant to make you say that no show like this could ever exist in a commercially compromised world.

It’s hard to blame reality TV for this specifically — if indeed it’s a question of blame (a lot of people like all those hit shows, and none of them can be blamed for being more popular than Terriers). It’s more a question of how the model of cable success has changed recently. One of the things that made cable different from broadcast was that cable had fewer flops. On a broadcast network, most shows fail, and everybody knows when a season starts that most of the new shows will not be back. Cable networks, with fewer original shows and less pressure on each one, was more likely to keep a show around for several years despite not really being a success.

That went for shows that were good (I was glad Duckman managed 70 episodes) and bad (who can forget all the jokes about HBO’s refusal to ever cancel Arli$$, even though nobody remembers the show itself). The premium channels, like HBO and Showtime, still have this to some extent — Showtime doesn’t cancel a lot of things, and HBO has entered into this weird arrangement where it cancels under-performing shows while pretending it isn’t actually canceling them. But for the basic cable networks, the pressure seems to have gotten more intense. There’s more competition, and as Landgraf notes, there’s more competition within each smaller demographic, meaning the network can’t always sell a show to advertisers based on some arcane, appealing demographic sliver; if the show is not popular then there will be plenty other cable shows doing better in that same sliver. All of which means that cable networks have what they didn’t use to have very often: critically acclaimed flops. Brand-building flops. Shows that are worth keeping around to enhance the network’s reputation, but have to be canceled because they’re just too unprofitable. It’s sad when a good or nearly-great show like Terriers flops, but good shows have been flopping since the medium began. It may be that we’re just not used to it happening as often in cable, so it’s more surprising.

This kind of Darwinian programming has been part of broadcast TV literally since the beginning, but it looks like it’s going to be part of cable in a bigger way than before. There may be less likelihood of a Mad Men, a show that starts with very few viewers but sticks around because of its acclaim, its demographically desirable viewers, and the network’s desire to establish a brand that goes beyond a bunch of reruns and cheap reality shows. (Maybe Mad Men and Breaking Bad were kind of flukey — if AMC had not been trying to rebuild itself from the ground up, they might not have stuck the way they did.) We may just be in for a future where cable is a lot like broadcast, and that includes the simple but undeniable fact that some shows flop. Justified, the revived The Game and Jersey Shore are all in their own ways examples of the new model of a cable hit: not unfathomably more complex than what you could do on broadcast networks, just offering something for a more targeted audience than broadcast.

Meanwhile, the complex and experimental stuff may well be migrating to broadcast, where a show isn’t completely screwed if it fails to reach a specific segment of the viewing audience. I think it’s entirely arguable that The Good Wife and Fringe are doing more ambitious stuff than most recent basic cable dramas (and while neither is a lock for next season, neither is a surefire cancellation either), while in the comedy realm, there are a lot of broadcast half-hour shows that are pretty ambitious in one way or another: the NBC foursome, and some episodes of the current comeback season of How I Met Your Mother. (And once you get into shows that are not ambitious but are fun — and there’s nothing wrong with that — I think the broadcast shows are still generally better-executed than their basic cable counterparts. The extra money makes a difference.) Broadcast is still a dog-eat-dog kind of world but I think many of us were too quick to assume that cable was going to eat broadcast’s lunch; cable is subject to a lot of the same pressures. and those pressures are increasing.

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