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Should We Mourn the Death of the Network TV Drama?

There’s a drought in Hollywood. Have you heard? No, there’s no shortage of water or food — or certainly of vapid celebrity vanity, but I kid the West Coast. No, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the broadcast networks are finding drama (on-screen, that is) to be in scarily short supply. “The broadcast networks threw open their doors in July for the annual TV development season, and so far drama writers have been slow to appear,” THR reports. TV networks are having a hard time filling their drama slates. And who’s to blame? No surprise: the networks say it’s those meddling kids in cable and on the Internet. But is that the whole story?

The idea that basic and pay cable are dominating the television drama landscape is, by no means, news: cable is where we go for Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, The Newsroom, and on and on and on. The networks, meanwhile, are dominated by seemingly interchangeable crime procedurals and guilty-pleasure soaps. Television is a writer’s medium — and writers who want to make an impact don’t go to the vanilla confines of the Big Four. This has been the norm for years, a shift that began around the turn of the century with the success of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and the like, but the networks are, seemingly, just now concerned.

NCIS

THR quotes Universal TV executive VP Bela Bajaria on this point: “There’s no denying that the sheer volume of cable dramas — including those from Netflix, Amazon and everywhere else — has had an impact on who is available.” That “sheer volume” is pretty breathtaking, according to THR: “There are believed to be more than 150 dramas — among broadcast, cable and digital — in production, leaving many writers and producers locked up or too busy running shows to develop new ones.”

So with all those shows in production, why are so few of them going to NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox? Because they’re yesterday’s news, buddy. “Even the traditional advantage network executives have had in being able to promise financial rewards far greater than their cable cousins has slipped with what some are dubbing the ‘Netflix effect,’ referring to the streaming service’s willingness to shell out big money, straight-to-series orders and limited creative interference — a combination against which ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC often can’t compete.”

do-no-harm

Something tells me that while all three of those factors matter, the final one is the most important. Broadcast television is one of the last standing bastions of “old media,” and there’s no question that the suits at the network have got their paws all over the shows — why do you think all of CBS’s dramas not only look and sound the same, but have the same alphabet-soup-and-city-name titles? The idea of “limited creative interference” is an undoubtedly attractive one to creatives who are looking to create interesting and innovative new programming — particularly when the networks’ primary function seems to be dumbing down their shows to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Which outlet would you rather take your show to: the one that airs Breaking Bad and Mad Men, or the one that airs (a couple of times, anyway) focus-grouped misfires like Do No Harm (aka “Dr. Facehands”) and Deception?

The real question worth asking about the network drama shortage is this: does it matter? Hour-long scripted dramas are elaborate, expensive undertakings (particularly when loaded up with pricy movie-star talent) — which is presumably why so many of them are getting yanked from the air when they don’t immediately deliver bang-up ratings. On cable, as The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff noted a couple of months back, high-profile original dramas can function as a loss leader to raise a cable network’s profile: “the big money,” VanDerWerff notes, “is in sitcom reruns and reality shows.” The networks have got enough of the latter to choke the average viewer; they can’t air the former, but they can air pre-rerun sitcoms, and they continue to do those pretty well. (Not Louie well, mind you, but good enough.) But until the broadcast networks are willing to offer the kind of freedom and experimentation of their cable and digital counterparts, those open doors THR describes are likely to keep on swinging in the wind.

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