Insight. Antics.

Dramatic Reversal.

In Television on June 3, 2010 at 3:20 am

Everybody in media is trying to figure out where TV is going. How will we consume content?  On Hulu? On iPads? Intravenously? (Oh, to get a steady drip of Mad Men in my bloodstream… the euphoria…)

Those markets and models are in the midst of transition. However, one thing that has become clear within the medium itself is that with the combined ends of Lost (amid clever audience-specific Target ads), 24 (four “days” too late), and Law & Order (it’s rare to find a show that is older than all of your shirts), the network drama has changed. Those were the most culturally iconic, influential dramas left on the networks. Their collective finale presents an opportunity to discuss a shift in the paradigm: the era of the serial drama on broadcast television is over.

In the late Nineties and early Aughts, shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Nip/Tuck co-existed in their natural habitats with the likes of West Wing, ER, and NYPD Blue. Now that the upstarts of original cable programming are highly evolved, there’s a schism.

Serial dramas, characterized by a narrative arc that plays out over the course of a season or over the entire series, have taken refuge among the cable stars. When did the last successful network serial drama that’s still on-air launch? In 2005, with Grey’s Anatomy?

Let’s face it; shows get a bit of a cache for being on high-end cable. It’s much cooler to say you’re watching True Blood tonight than the The Vampire Diaries.

By contrast, procedural dramas are single-serving, hourlong-dispensed pellets of entertainment. They’re entirely more situational. Character development and thematic exploration take a backseat to an episodically-confined plot.

It’s no secret that premium cable outlets like HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC are airing quality scripted shows. Dexter, Mad Men, Treme, Damages, The Tudors, Rescue Me, and Breaking Bad all have robust ad campaigns and many favorable reviews. And five of the seven Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series in 2009 were serial dramas on cable.

It’s not simply that serial dramas are all over cable, but rather that they have starved broadcast of anything un-schlocky. V was renewed by ABC. I mean, V, c’mon!

Both the serial and the procedural drama are very attractive, for entirely different reasons.

Serials on cable have gained such clout that development teams want to shop their ideas in that market before they go to ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

Being on cable, shows lose the brunt of the ratings pressure they would have to deal with week-to-week on network. Any new show on broadcast TV claws tooth-and-nail just to get a full season in, let alone a renewal. Virtually every non-network drama has a full first-run of its season. HBO has taken to renewing a series after one or two good showings. For instance, Treme was renewed after its premiere. Contrast that with another new show this year, Flash Forward on ABC: just canceled after 22 episodes.

To that point, another benefit to the premium cable drama is the tendency toward fewer episodes. Most don’t go above 13 in a season. And we’ve all seen a filler episode on network TV. (Nikki & Paolo, anyone?)

The virtual assurance of a full season lifts a huge burden for writers and directors, who are in turn wooed by the license to push the envelope further with the edgier allowances of cable. The FCC has no guidelines for language, sex, and violence on cable: therein lies the true catalyst for the success of these shows.

Viewers relish the gritty and the graphic. Moreover, a serial drama’s dynamic characters and unusual premise tends to intrigue audiences and enter the zeitgeist more readily, creating word-of-mouth buzz. In tandem, these two features tend to make serial dramas addictive and take on lives of their own. (Once they get going though, they generally have a high barrier to entry.)

Further, as Emily Nussbaum remarked in New York magazine, the gold standard of procedural dramas, Law & Order, is “not the kind of show most people will collect on DVD,” but the gold standard of cables serials, The Sopranos, is. Fans will buy the DVD (and barely watch it) and stragglers can access the whole show in one fell swoop.

As for procedural dramas, they’re now indispensable staples of the network schedule because they’re easily approachable, in the same way you can laugh at a sitcom joke even if you haven’t seen it before, and because their proclivity for corralling viewers in for a full hour of episode to see what happens is unparalleled.

That ratings success has caused the format to blossom, and perhaps become overgrown. As the original crime procedural, Law & Order begat its own children, and then other crime families rose, like the CSIs and the NCISs. (NCIS, by the way, is the highest-rated scripted program on TV.)  The genre has expanded its bounds slightly with shows like The Mentalist, Cold Case, and Castle, and stretched in other directions, to the medical procedural, i.e. House or even Royal Pains.

Since they’re loosely tethered to any long-term storylines and relatively formulaic, they’re easier for writers to churn out. That cliffhanger-free promise delivers instant gratification and resolution for the viewer.

(An aside: the only premium cable channel I can conjure to mind that has aired a procedural drama is arguably FX, with Justified. Perhaps that’s the next challenge?)

Regardless of the format, it’s generally been more expensive to make a single drama than a single comedy (unless it’s Friends and the stars each get paid the GDP of Swaziland per episode). That added cost is not simply because of the added length of a full hour, but for the scale: CGI, on-location shoots, and stunts. Casts are often larger, too. However, making a drama for cable is cheaper.

Interestingly, sitcoms half not made that transition to cable in the same way dramas have. Some would argue that shows like Weeds and Hung are comedies. (I would include Entourage among those if it made me laugh in the last two seasons.) Not in my book: those shows are dramedies. They have serious stakes, real struggles, but often put their characters in some amusingly sticky wickets.

So, think of a comedy. Think of the top-rated or top-reviewed comedies: 30 Rock, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, The Office, Two and a Half Men, Parks & Recreation, and Community should be in there. Now, I challenge you to name four comedies not on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, without Googling. (Tyler Perry vehicles do not count as they are not comedic.) Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League? If you can get past three, pat yourself on the back, you know more about TV than I do.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Aside from a few curse-laden sitcoms like Curb, what else is there? It seems like the broadcast nets cracked the code for raunch and expletives with sly cultural references and witty, oblique allusions to sex that actually end up touting the writer’s skill further and poking fun at the establishment they exist within. 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother are perfect examples of this.

Of course, there’s a new crop of serial dramas coming out in the fall, but they will overwhelmingly fail to become appointment TV. Sure, there will always be something on, but the ratings breadwinners will continue to be procedural dramas and the cultural flashpoints and conversation starters will continue to be premium cable serial dramas.

There’s an outside chance that one of the new fall crop will harvest into a cultural phenomenon, filling the void, but if I had the choice to invest in a broadcast TV ETF and a premium cable ETF (it would be really cool if these existed), I’d take the latter.

  1. I can only think of one original cable comedy beyond the ones you mentioned: My Boys on TBS. I would say, though, that a lot of the short-run cable shows, especially the summer shows–dramedies like Royal Pains, White Collar, Drop Dead Diva–have as many comedy lines in them as a lot of comedies do.

    • Good call on My Boys, it came to mind after I posted, and I am pro-Jim Gaffigan (who I once met in a slightly humorous encounter). I agree, White Collar, Royal Pains, et al. do have a distinct sarcasm to their voices, but I could not in good conscience call them comedies. I simply wouldn’t sleep well.

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