Television’s Two Leagues

29Sep10

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.

Update:

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.



23 Responses to “Television’s Two Leagues”

  1. Jason,

    I think you make some excellent points here, but I would point out one other group of people (for the largest part) have no idea what type of network a show screens on – those who engage with shows from overseas. I’m not 100% sure of the economics of this (I actually want to find out more about it), but I’m guessing that on a lot of programming, networks make just as much, if not more, from overseas sales as they do from first-run advertising sales, which let’s face it, is what Nielsen ratings are all about.

    It might be interesting to compare the ratings in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, France etc for cable vs broadcast shows, to see if cable shows do inherently have lower ratings, or whether that is more a facet of the US network structure.

    • Good point, Mark. Non-US viewers experience US TV in a completely different system of time & schedule, with localized brands overriding the American ones. Definitely going to be one of my points of research while I’m in Germany next year.

  2. 3 jasoncgutierrez

    One interesting proposal I’ve read (you might’ve assigned it, but I honestly don’t remember…I’m getting old) is to restructure network seasons so that they more closely resemble those on cable (or more likely the BBC). There would shorter seasons with new shows and new seasons being rolled out year-round. It might not address the problems with network television programming (lack of serialization and in-the-box thinking) that you raise, but it could encourage networks to greenlight more edgy shows with the knowledge that, if it fails to find an audience, its only 8 or 10 episodes they have to air. Of course, I think this is mostly a pipe dream. While a programming format like this sounds like a boom for creatives in the television industry (not to mention viewers), it strikes me that it would be a tough sell to advertisers.

    But, one question that this post raises for me is this: would a move to shorter seasons or more flexibility in terms serialization on networks lead to an increase in quality? I’m not so sure. It strikes me that something like Detriot 1-8-7 or Blue Bloods would get greenlit anyway, and we’re still complaining about a lack of quality. It seems like a real sea change needs to occur at the executive level to make it okay for riskier material to get on the air. Who knows, maybe Jeff Zucker leaving NBC will bring about that change. I mean, I’ve seen The Event and those guys need all the help they can get.

    • The short-season model that dominates on cable and much of the world would presumably increase the tolerance & opportunity for innovation, but it goes against the way networks have always done things, and change is hard. Despite the challenges in the industry, primetime network programming is still quite profitable, and thus the incentive to change toward a model that would certainly yield less money for successes is hard to justify economically. Can’t blame Zucker on that!

  3. 5 Austin

    I suppose I don’t understand why the networks aren’t looking into alternative models of scheduling anyway — audience segmentation has lowered expectations dramatically, and while reality “event” programs like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘American Idol’ routinely get 20 million+ viewers, no other program on network TV is touching those numbers, even CBS procedurals. I definitely think you’re right about adults under 50 not viewing TV according to the flow model, and if that’s the audience the networks are attempting to draw in, I find it odd that they’re sticking to their guns and carrying on as they’ve always done. Yes, the status quo will probably remain due to the economic drive of advertising dollars, but I think it’s time someone in the advertising industry or in the executive level of the networks got creative and tried something new in terms of scheduling and advertising.

    On the other hand, while we laud cable for different production methods, the cable networks that are ratings gangbusters (that’d be USA and MTV, in my estimation) are actually creating series that are very similar to conventional broadcast models. It’s not terribly difficult for me to see ‘White Collar’ or ‘Covert Affairs’ on NBC — in fact, why even make ‘Undercovers’ at all? That’s two pretty but pretty boring spy series with terrible greenscreen in the same network family!

    I guess my question is, do you think the networks have any incentive to change their production schedule/strategy?

    • As I replied above to Jason, there’s little incentive because networks are still raking in profits from mid to high-level hits, and any schedule upheaval would threaten that base. My ideal scenario would be for networks to use their co-owned cable channels as a farm league to develop shows, but alas even though Fox & FX share ownership, they are still independently operated entities with no real history of cooperation.

      • Their history, such as it is, is mostly limited to sweetheart deals for big reruns in the late 90s (X-Files, Married With Children, M*A*S*H, Ally McBeal). This relationship was roundly criticized at the time (e.g., allegations from profit participants that they weren’t getting the best value for these properties), and hasn’t been as prominent since.

  4. I agree with much of this, but I think there’s a central hypocrisy here: while we want cable sensibilities to move into the network space (which leads us to root for show like Lone Star), we resist any elements of network structure making a comparable move into cable. I don’t necessarily think this is evident in your piece, Jason, but in the initial response to both Justified and Terriers we saw how elements of procedural storytelling send off alarm bells which lead “cable snobs” to condemn the series (preemptively, considering how each show is developing a larger story arc gradually, as opposed to immediately.

    That we respond to this hybridity so differently between the network and cable spaces reinforces the difference and conflict between the two “leagues”: while we praise The Good Wife for adding serialized elements, there is resistance to a show like Justified or Terriers which uses procedural elements to build a serial framework. It’s why I am somewhat resistant to efforts to too clearly delineate between the two structures and associate one with simplicity and the other with complexity. As we do so, we start to stereotype both “leagues” into fairly narrow boxes, and this fine definition is already beginning to damage network series like Lone Star (“too cable for broadcast”) and cable series like Terriers (“too broadcast for cable (at least initially)”).

    I think that there is certainly a distinction, but our societal creation of fairly rigid proto-typical forms has led to the unfair problematization of these hybrids, which is something that concerns me just a bit.

    [On the topic of Lone Star, which I also enjoyed, I wonder if it had worked better if it had opened as a hybrid: start with a procedural structure focusing on a con man and his father, and then have the smaller individual cases gradually develop into two separate cases in which he falls in love. However, the irony is that the structure which may have worked better for broadcast would never have made it to air, as the pilot would not be nearly complex enough to get FOX’s attention – you need the freedom of cable to be able to tell a serialized story which starts out slowly with only shades of future complexity, and yet there this sort of start would be criticized for being too simple.]

    • I didn’t mean to suggest that cable=complexity, but rather that the production parameters of cable enable innovative tendencies much more readily. The Justified example is apt, as critics certainly wondered how it would add up, as we assume that FX/AMC shows will deliver more than engaging procedural episodes. If Good Wife (as it exists now) were on cable, I’d still enjoy it, but I’d be disappointed that they didn’t take advantage of their opportunities to push boundaries even more. The point of my rushed-off post was to highlight how these categories are both materially different for producers, and culturally distinct in ways that could be made more flexible in practice.

  5. It would be interesting to know how much of this “broadcast” vs. “cable” dichotomy has become standard industry lore, pre-emptively structuring the very possibilities for a drama even before the initial pitch is done.

    Much of this has been true for decades, though I wonder how it has developed over the past decade. You could imagine that the networks were able to buffer themselves more, even after The Sopranos, by reassuring themselves that it was on premium cable. But then The Shield hit, and opened up the possibilities of ad-supported “complex” drama. From that point on, the networks must have at least been intrigued enough in the potential for such an approach to work to keep many projects afloat through development and maybe beyond. Here you have to give ABC and NBC some credit in the mid-late 00s: despite a ton of failures, they were willing to take chances with some fairly serialized and off-the-beaten-path material (e.g., The Nine, Studio 60, Invasion, Six Degrees, What About Brian, Friday Night Lights, Pushing Daisies, Journeyman). Even CBS deserves some credit, for Jericho and Swingtown in particular.

    What’s interesting is that in 2010 the logic seems to be, “Well, we gave that a try; it didn’t work. Let’s go back to tried and true.” Lone Star and My Generation were the only dramas of this year’s class that really went against the grain. All others were anchored in fairly standard genre settings and episodic structures. That safe bet seems to have paid off thus far, sadly.

    Going forward, I won’t be surprised if the networks pitch stability as their primary quality to advertisers, clinging to established properties and brands (the fates of the CSIs and American Idol over the next couple years will be telling). Meanwhile, cable and the internet become even more enticing to drama producers, continuing to expand the range yet rely on particular niches. We’re very much in the era of “not remotely network” cable dramas: Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Terriers, certainly, but I’d also add something like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which just goes for it, reveling in its marginal status. However, we’re also in the era of “network-ish” cable dramas, especially on USA and TNT: not quite as challenging but still not mainstream enough for the networks.

    Basically, the status quo of the 2000s is going away, but it’s still too much in doubt to say decisively what the definition of a “network” or “cable” drama is. The advertisers’ expectations of television are key in this mix, and those could certainly change quickly: NB, the back end of the baby boom is hitting 50.

  6. 11 trippdup

    The disparity you describe between network and cable has always struck me as being somewhat analogous to the relationship between independently-produced and studio films. If movies were any cheaper to make, the comparison would be even stronger.

    • I mentioned something similar to @jmittell on Twitter this AM: http://twitter.com/KelliMarshall/status/25872418305

      But the more I think about it…

      Ultimately, a well-crafted narrative is a well-crafted narrative, no matter if it costs $80m or $1.5m, no matter if it’s on cable or network television.

      Sure, network shows have certain restrictions and cannot feature as much “profane or graphic content” as cable shows, but does that make them the “lesser team,” so to speak? Moreover, would we say the same thing about the hundreds of memorable and innovative films produced under the limitations of the studio system and the strictures of the Production Code? In other words, do we need a different set of rules to critique CASABLANCA and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN than we do for BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, and everything that follows?

      • Here’s how the film analogy would better apply:

        Hollywood mainstream films would be required to be precisely 2:43:17, with regimented breaks requiring cliff-hangers every few minutes. If audiences lose interest after the first ten minutes, the film would cease to exist.

        It’s far less about cost or mainstream vs. niche audiences, than about the parameters for success and constraints on how stories can be told. It’s about the specific system of serialization of ongoing narratives, and thus cannot be effectively compared to stand-alone movies (or musical albums).

        Or more concisely, as Scott Tobias posted on Twitter: “Fuck television, you know? At least when a movie bombs, it’s already been completed. No one stops the projector after reel two.”

      • To be fair, there’s a number of films I wish had been cancelled 10 minutes in…

  7. 15 djones

    The movie comparison works, and I’d say it’s also comparable to the divide between major label and minor label in the music industry. When you see a promo for CSI where a character actually states “but that’s what a serial killer does!”, as if viewers 10 years into a series about murders have no knowledge of serial killer methodology, and even worse that it would be plausible for a forensic investigator to say that line to another professional without being told off it’s hard not to feel condescended to. If you don’t need to know anything about the characters or even the subject matter going in, it’s hard to feel like there’s anything worth engaging with, and easy to see those shows as the TV version of mindless Top 40 pop and rock music. Cable TV seems to be home to nearly all of the programming that caters to people who want to actually engage with shows.

    It works for CBS to program by the “fans of a show watch 1 in 3 episodes” maxim for now, but the aging viewership for network TV isn’t just indicative of younger viewers watching via alternate methods. I can’t say I have any statistical evidence to prove my point, but from what I’ve seen amongst my cohort (mid 20s, university educated) is a much more devoted fandom directed at serialized cable programming. Rather than watching some CSI or NCIS or Two and a Half Men, it seems like everyone is watching Dexter and Breaking Bad, and making sure to see every single episode, regardless of how they access it.

    In order to draw in my demographic, I do think the networks will have to adopt the model Jason G. mentions above, with shorter seasons scheduled year round. Following the cable model of playing shows several times during a week (I’d suggest once in primetime and a few times elsewhere) could allow networks to recoup production costs and reduce the risks in taking chances on creative ideas. A year round model would also avoid situations like the awful crush of premiere week that seems to have left about half of the new shows on death’s door. They also need to scrap the awful Nielsen ratings system, and adopting a lower expecation/lower risk system would allow them enough time to get more accurate ratings from things like DVR figures and so on to see which shows are made profitable by “alternative” viewing methods.

  8. Thanks for all the comments – the danger of posting to a blog minutes before you board a plane is that you start a conversation that you can’t participate in! A few more thoughts & updates:

    – On Twitter, somebody asked me where Lost fits in. As Derek suggests above, the early/mid-2000s (I place 1999 as the key year, with the dual successes of The Sopranos and The West Wing suggesting the potential rewards for trying something new, but that’s another post…) saw networks trying a lot of new storytelling strategies. Most failed to last a season, but that’s true of all genres & styles. Lost was truly exceptional – almost didn’t get on the air, out-of-the-gate surprise hit, mostly hands-off attitude from network, granted freedom for setting end date and shorter seasons. It’s the most cable-like show on networks – not in terms of content, but because the production parameters were so un-network like.

    – Another important question from Twitter – what about USA/TNT shows? Indeed, “cable show” as a marker of quality, innovation, heavy-serialization, WTF twists, etc. applies more to premium channels like HBO & Showtime, and the non-premium “elite” channels of AMC and FX. But USA and TNT share the production parameters of FX and AMC, with shorter seasons, a lower threshold of audience share for success (although some USA shows draw network-like ratings), and a tolerance for innovation, even if it’s not undertaken. Look at TNT’s Men of a Certain Age for a great example of an excellent show that can thrive in a realm of lower competition and more freedom. It doesn’t belong on AMC or FX, but it’s definitely not the typical TNT procedural.

    – Alas, Fox pulling the plug on Lone Star extended to canceling the screening in Austin! I’ll report on what gets put in its place – hopefully not a rerun of House

    – Last night’s Terriers was crazy good. Watch this show!

  9. Just a thought – do we in academia, and to an extent those in television criticism, get too caught up in looking for a “game-changer”, a show like Lost which is revolutionary, and like nothing we’ve seen before.

    Thinking back over the innovations in mainstream television in the past 20-years, most seem to have stemmed from a variety of changes being made slowly across a number of programs – very rarely is there one show which suddenly adopts a new concept from which numerous other successes spin off. Whether it’s narrative complexity, the rise of ‘quality tv’, the notion of ‘teen tv’, or the storming success of ‘reality tv’, they all have a myriad of antecedents which made the change slowly. Sure, we could name a show where it finally all came together and was a barn-storming success, but rarely is that where it started…

    Game-changers are fun, no doubt at all, but some of my favourite shows have been those involved in the slow creeping change.

  10. 19 Colin Tait

    Hi Jason,

    Great, provocative piece. What I wonder about Lone Star (as I do to some degree about Friday Night Lights, Justified, etc…) is whether the setting is too specifically local to translate to sales overseas – especially as a DVD boxed set, etc…

    The basic cable shows don’t seem to have the same cultural capital as others, so I wonder if this is another part of the pre-emptive cancellation.

  11. Just a pointer for anyone following the comments – I’ve updated the original post to account for some points raised by Kyle Killen at the Lone Star screening.


  1. 1 Tweets that mention Television’s Two Leagues « Just TV -- Topsy.com
  2. 2 Lone Star Lament: Kyle Killen Discusses the Series’ Rise and Demise at Flow 2010 « Cultural Learnings
  3. 3 The PopuList: 3 October 2010 « MiddBlog

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