And This Is News Now?
Earlier this week, the New York Times business section ran a front page article on television. In it, it said that ratings were dropping across the board for every major network, that interest in reboots and reality shows were down, and that even football was having problems getting an audience. In other news, the Earth revolves around the sun, cows go moo, and politicians are less than truthful.
I am frankly amazed that it has taken this long for everyone to realize just how dire the state of network television is. Certainly the artistic forces behind television have been beefing about it for at least a decade, ever since the seven year gap where no broadcast series was nominated for Best Drama. But now that the networks are losing money, everyone is calling it a crisis. However, this can’t come as a shock to anybody who’s watched television closely for the last twenty years. Yes, millions of people are migrating to cable and streaming services for television. That’s where the good stuff is. And you know how I know this? That’s where all the talent has been migrating for nearly twenty years.
Entire books have been written (and no doubt will continue to be written) about this phenomena, doing far greater justice to the subject than I can in a smaller state. For now, I’m just going to focus on the first great migration — that period in the era of the first decade of this century when it seemed like all of the talent in TV was working on HBO.
And it’s not that much of an exaggeration. HBO had the right people in charge who were willing to get talent to try and earn a niche of their own. Most people believe that this started with The Sopranos, but in reality, it started a full two years before that when Tom Fontana, the genius who wrote so many of the great episodes of St. Elsewhere and Homicide, decided he was tired of network interference, and took up an offer to work for the commitment of an eight-episode drama set in a maximum security prison. The show was called Oz.
Like most progenitors of great art, a lot of critics didn’t get what they were watching at first. TV Guide and the New York Times never quite warmed to it, but other publications like Entertainment Weekly realized what the hell Fontana was trying. It wasn’t just that the series was unrelentingly grim and bleak in a way that most series anywhere hadn’t even tried, or that there was so much blood and male nudity onscreen. It was that there were no heroes, and not a lot of people you could even really like. It was a show that was willing to take risks — in the Pilot, Fontana introduced a character named Dino Ortolani, seemed to set him up like he was going to be a lead, and that killed him at the climax. Gruesomely. The series who introduced a couple of major characters a week, and kill off just as many by the end of the episode. It was radical, and even now stands as one of the bleakest offering cable — or anywhere, in fact — ever tried.
Slowly, other talents migrated towards HBO. In particular were the holy trinity of Davids; Chase, who had worked on I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure; Simon, who took over Fontana’s role as brains behind Homicide, and Milch, the force behind NYPD Blue. Each were the creative freedom to do what they wanted to do, and once again, I’m not just referring to the profanity, nudity, and violence, though all three writers were more than willing to use them. What all of them wanted to do was experiment in ways that the networks, whose sole focus has been on making palatable for mass consumption, would never have allowed them to do. Chase wanted to make a drama about a sociopathic wiseguy who had mother issues that emotionally damaged him. Simon wanted to tell a story about the war on drugs, ‘where the cops work for Enron and the dealers work for Enron, and both sides get punished for their loyalty.” And Milch reinvented the western by using an improvised system for scripts that had driven the staff and writers of NYPD Blue insane the last years. The executives were willing to give them the freedom to do this, and we now consider The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood among the greatest shows ever made.
And the networks reaction… was to yawn. All of the networks were guilty of this to some extent, but the biggest offender by far was CBS. In 2000, they produced CSI, a police procedural about crime scene workers that was technically sharp but emotionally empty. When it became a smash, every network duplicated it, especially CBS. NBC’s reaction was to put up three more Law & Order franchises over the next four years, keep it hit comedies on the air well past their expiration date, and milk ER until no one cared about it any more. Only ABC tried to do anything to reverse its fortunes, and that came out of desperation. Tottering on fourth place, in 2004 they introduced a series of brilliant creative programs, some of which were just satires and revamps done refreshing well (Desperate Housewives and Boston Legal) or series that were truly moonshots (Lost). And once those series became smashes, every network tried to replicate them.
Now, this doesn’t mean the network became artistic voids. On the contrary, a lot of the comedy series of the past twenty years have been among the best ever created — Parks and Recreation, The Middle, black-ish, 30 Rock, and Community have been among the most dazzling I’ve ever seen. And every so often, the networks will produce genuine gems — The Good Wife, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, 24, and American Crime are clearly astonishing works. But with the fracturing of the TV audience becoming for and more clear with each year, the network keep trying to do one of three things: procedurals, remakes (if not out and out continuations) of old series, and reality show after reality show. Is it any wonder that after years of having the same dreck forced upon us, millions have migrated to services where the series are different? Say what you will about cable, it’s hard to believe Shameless and Billions can exist in the same universe, much less on the same network. Cable networks have so many different original series one can hardly find a common thread. NBC is basically the Dick Wolf network by now.
If the networks want to save themselves — and if the article in the Times tells us anything, they clearly need to — they need to be able to free themselves from the creative restraints they seem to have. They need to give series more time to be a hit, they need to make fewer remakes and be willing to risk failure. When NBC was tottering around fourth a decade ago, they decided to stop trying to make functional series and keep going with series that generally weren’t cookie cutter. They failed a lot, but at least they were failing upward, and now they’re number 1 again. Of course, they now have an entire night to devote to Dick Wolf’s Chicago series, so that may not last. But that’s the lesson they need to take if they want to stay relevant and more importantly, solvent. Will they? I really hope so. Of course, they may choose to reboot Scrubs first, but at least we can hope.