CPC 2020 VOL 5: The Sorry State Of Scripted Network TV
Network TV, which is comprised of four main channels in the US and three here in Canada, have, during the course of the life of this column and the guy who writes it, has gone from my
most watched and observed to the least.
There are a few good reasons for this, and one of the very first that I can recall is The Sopranos.
I can’t remember exactly where I first saw The Sopranos, but I know it wasn’t on one of the biggies. And I distinctly remember sitting down to watch it for the first time and seeing Tony Soprano’s ennui when the ducks or geese take off from him swimming pool, the abject sadness he felt and what it laid the foundation for, said to me…this is something different than Matlock or The Rockford Files or Baywatch or any of the other network crap I was so fond of.
This was the real deal and the beginning of something that would change television entertainment in my little world forever, and eventually become a major league threat to the networks’ dominance of the North American TV universe.
The Trouble With Network TV
The biggest problem that network TV currently faces, and has since the development of first, the cable networks and now the streaming services, is its business model. It’s based on advertising dollars, which, in turn are determined by audience size. And you can’t get the former without big numbers in the latter.
The early cable networks were also based on advertising revenue, plus a small cut from the cable companies who sold their channels. But the streaming services are all strictly based on revenue generated by subscriptions, and the simple fact that the world wide market is the pond they fish in.
Network TV comes very much with its own set of rules, regarding the subject matter, the kinds of language, the degree of censorship, the format of the show and the pacing of the shows through a TV half hour or hour of time.
It should be noted that I am really just talking about TV dramas and comedies here. I personally don’t give a shit about reality shows, contest shows, other than Jeopardy, or news shows because they’re not entertainment.
As you can imagine, creating and executing shows within all of these pre-set networlk boundaries, while an art form in and of itself, really does just become a programming format the creators are forced to stick to in order to make logical spaces for the real stars of these shows, which are the commercials.
The TV cynics would be quick to lump all these shows into the ‘formulaic crap’ category, and they probably wouldn’t be wrong. So then it really does become a question of who you really like to watch, and not as much what it is they are trying to communicate. In short, a cult of personality.
The networks understood that from the very early days, and so TV actors with good TVQ, can have long, but only slightly varied careers.
People like Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, Tom Selleck, Buddy Epson, Don Knotts and Raymond Burr from back in the day, are classic examples of these types of characters, who attracted large audiences playing a number of different characters in different show formats.
The same applies to the role players, the professional bad guys, who can appear and re-appear in many different series and do so over the course of an entire 20 to 30 year career.
Because of the high level of recognition it created, network TV also served as a springboard to the movies. Just ask Will Smith, Bruce Willis, Cybil Shepherd, Johnny Depp, Mike Myers & Jennifer Garner to name a few.
But at the end of the day, the emergence of cable and then streaming networks, really did change the game in a very dramatic way.
First of all, it attracted a lot of the creative people who found working with restrictive fixed formats and fairly conservative censorship rules, as well as characters without a ton of dimension to them, not at all to their liking.
Viva La Revolution
Pioneering companies like HBO and Showtime and Comedy Central for example, opened the doors for everyone, giving them all permission to evolve the medium with shows that cut deeper, gave characters real dimension and long story arcs to work with. In the case of comedy, it gave them a much broader scope in terms of subject matter, language and politics.
It also gave them freedom from the restrictions of having to contour the flow of their shows to accommodate advertising slots, which, as a writer of this sort of stuff, which I used to be, was liberating to the max.
Now this is not to say that there haven’t been, or currently are not, any shows really worth watching on network TV. But you have to realize that these are really only shows that you watch because you like the characters and maybe some or even all of the show’s actual message. There is, as pretty much has always been the case, very little new ground being broken on Network TV. But despite its derivative nature, there are still a few things that Heather and I like to watch regularly.
So here’s my little top 10 list of Network Shows that I still record and occasionally watch.
1. Will & Grace (It’s just a lot of fun and works hard at taking jabs at conservatism in America)
2. Young Sheldon (because I was a massive Big Bang Theory fan)
3. The FBI (because I like anything with Dick Wolf’s name on it)
4. Chicago Fire (see 3)
5. Chicago PD (see 3)
6. Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck, what else can I say?)
7. Deputy (This is a new series for the jury is still sort of out, but I have liked what I have seen so far. Very gritty.)
8. Whatever Star Trek series happens to be on at any given time.
9. Bluff City Law, (which only ran for 10 episodes and then was stupidly cut by shortsighted network assholes. We're hopi9ng it shows up again on a streamer)
10. Sadly, there is no 10, so I will just include re-runs of The Big Bang Theory, IMHO the best sitcom ever created.
Now I definitely understand that everybody has their own approach to TV watching and that most people have access to the main networks, so their little lists will be different from mine. And that’s cool. But this column is nothing if not reasonably subjective.
Well that’s really about it for this time. Of course, it’s not a great time of year for new shows to be appearing. Maybe I’ll do this again in the fall and see if network things improve.
That is, of course, if I haven’t gone completely over to the dark side.
Jim Murray is a writer, a reader, a sports fan and a TV watcher who has been writing about the sports & entertainment worlds since1998, which is when he created the Couch Potato Chronicles.
Jim is also an ex-ad agency writer and art director and has run his own creative consultancy, Onwords & Upwords, since 1989. He lives with his wife in the Niagara area of Ontario, and works with companies that are trying to make a difference in the world.
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