Television’s Two Leagues
I’m on my way down to the always-excellent Flow Conference in Austin today, where media scholars gather to engage in structured conversations rather than formal presentations. One of the highlights of the conference each year is a screening, and this year’s had me excited a couple of weeks ago when it was announced: an advanced look at the third episode of Fox’s Lone Star, with a Q&A from show’s creator (and Austin resident) Kyle Killen.
Now if you follow the TV business news, you know that Lone Star, after two episodes with abysmal ratings, got the unfortunate honor of being this season’s first cancelled show yesterday, despite being far and away the most critically praised of the season’s new network programs. I fall in line with the critics, as Lone Star was the only new network program that I’ve been excited to keep watching, with a great lead performance, a clever premise, and engaging writing. (I wrote up my thoughts on the pilot for Antenna.) So on a personal level, I’m sad to see the show disappear so quickly, and am excited for the screening & conversation with Killen as an exclusive-access coda to the series.
But what does the cancellation mean for the future of television drama? While I don’t think Lone Star was a major innovator that could have potentially spawned a wave of imitators or set a new paradigm for television storytelling, it is the only new network show I’ve seen that seems to be interested in breaking new ground rather than following well-established paradigms or norms. As the pre- and post-show press emphasized, the goal was to make a cable-style drama for network, with moral ambiguity, dark themes, and subtle serialized storytelling structures. The television industry is very good at making broad judgments based on small sample sizes (after all, that’s the entire flawed logic of the Nielsen ratings!), so I fear that the lesson the industry will generalize from this failure that cable-style storytelling is untenable on networks – although in this case, I think that overgeneralization might be true.
I’ve come to believe more and more that television drama has two fairly distinct leagues with different rules: broadcast and cable. I don’t think this matters much for viewers, especially younger ones who rarely watch via the scheduled flow model – if you’re accessing a program via an aggregator like a DVR, DVDs, iTunes, Hulu or torrents, you don’t care or even know what channel it was on or when it aired. The people most likely to watch television via the traditional flow model are the people that the industry least wants to reach, the over-50 set. So for television’s core target audience, shows are less defined by where they air than ever.
But from the production side, the difference is huge. For network drama, you need to craft a show that will produce over 15 hours of storytelling each year (approx 22 eps of 42 minutes each), with highly regimented scheduling both within the episode (ad breaks) and distributed throughout the year (with hiatuses and key surge moments in sweeps). Networks are highly involved in shaping a series, trying to sculpt a hit that will appeal to both an imagined target demographic and potential sponsors. Formulas, established stars, and the ability to pull off sweeps stunts are essential, and the network will judge your success largely in your ability to generate ratings in your first month – and pull the plug if you stumble.
On cable, seasons are shorter (more like 8-10 hours), more flexible in structure, and more typically produced with minimal interference from channel executives or teams of consultants. A premium is placed on innovation itself (which can be its own formula), and producers are usually guaranteed a run of at least a full season for a show to find its footing and audience. Serialization is tolerated and often encouraged, with many series framed as evolving narratives rather than interchangeable episodes The audience share that dictates a success is much smaller, meaning a hit cable show might appeal to fewer viewers than a flop network series.
For a striking example of the difference, look at the comparative cable vs. network shows from Shawn Ryan – on network, he’s produced two solid series in The Unit and Lie to Me, neither of which were his creations but he helped make them smart and effective genre dramas. But on FX, he created one of television’s landmark cop shows in The Shield and is now producing my favorite show currently airing, Terriers, a shaggy low-rent crime drama that has featured more surprises in three episodes than entire seasons of most network shows. Neither FX show would fly on network, not only because they are more profane and graphic in content, but because their appeal is inherently more fringe and niche – and the creative environment is far more encouraging of innovation. And we’ll see how those different dynamics play out in Ryan’s midseason Fox series, Ride-Along – can it deliver the cable quality in a network context?
Does this mean we have to grade on a curve in comparing series? In part we do – if you value stories that challenge your expectations or revel in innovation, then you cannot look to networks as a likely source of satisfaction. And I think we need to celebrate shows that manage to achieve exceptional results on networks despite the production contexts that can limit producers – for instance, I think The Good Wife is the best network hour-long show on the air today, offering an impressive blend of serial and episodic storytelling, playing with genre norms in innovative ways. But if it were on cable, I’d expect a more in terms of consistency of episodes (with almost half as many to produce each year), and want it to push against its formula a bit more. It would still be a great show, but production contexts matter – and the fact that it can manage to be as successful creatively on the most traditional network of CBS makes it even more impressive.
I’m curious what others think of this idea that there are two different leagues of television drama. I can’t think of a parallel in other creative media like film, music, or literature, so the best comparison I’ve thought of it between college and professional sports (and arguably, networks play the collegiate role in this metaphor). While talent in one certainly translates in the other, we need to understand how differing rules, opportunities and expectations make it difficult to compare across contexts – and thus need to evaluate success via different measures and frameworks.
At the Flow Conference, we were not able to see the never-aired third episode of Lone Star, as they hadn’t mixed down a final copy before the show was cancelled. However, we did screen the pilot, followed by an excellent Q&A with creator Kyle Killen. Many of the points Killen raised reinforced my points here about the different parameters for production & success between cable and broadcast drama. Myles McNutt has a detailed recap, but I wanted to mention a few points here.
Killen used the following metaphor to contrast the expectations for the two leagues. For a cable drama, imagine a thief holding your dog at gunpoint and demanding that you entertain him for the next 43 minutes or he’ll kill your dog. For a broadcast drama, the demand is that you entertain him for 43 minutes, and if he gets bored or distracted at any point for more than 2 minutes, the dog gets killed. Such is the short-term demands of network broadcasting, where the wandering attentions of fickle Nielsen families can kill your beloved pets.
Another important difference he mentioned concerns story arcs. Lone Star was given a pick-up which said that if the show remains on the air, it would get at least 13 episodes. After the first few weeks, Fox could order the “back nine” to make the season run 22 episodes. Since he’d conceived of the arc with a clear sense of how the first season would conclude to set-up the second, he had to be prepared to “accordion” the story to delay this ending, requiring “tap dancing” (Damon Lindelof’s phrase for the stalling tactics required in seasons 2 & 3 of Lost, which Killen referenced as well). Cable drama producers not only know that all 13 eps of their show will air, but that the number won’t change midstream.
Finally, Killen highlighted the importance of act breaks and the precise length of network shows. The first cut of the pilot was 61 minutes long, and the need to cut it down to 43 required major restructuring that effectively marginalized the two main female characters (a critique that some have made about the show and its marketing). For me, the pilot worked well as a singular character study, but it’s important to note that the constraints of scheduling, act breaks, and length requirements profoundly impacted their storytelling possibilities. Killen contrasted this to Mad Men, which is written without act breaks, with commercial breaks decided in post-production. Again, a huge difference for how you tell a story.
Filed under: Television, TV Industry | 23 Comments
Tags: lone star, terriers, the good wife