Four Ways Network Television Can Save Itself—And Distinguish Itself From Cable

When the broadcast television season began several weeks ago, one of the things that stood out most from network to networks was the ratings. NBC may have started to claw its way out of the ratings cellar with Revolution, one of the few bona fide hits of fall, but lots of its broadcast counterparts found themselves in trouble. CBS, normally top of the heap, saw two of its new entries, drama Made In Jersey and sitcom Partners, tank out of the gate. Fox renewed two new comedies, The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate, despite the fact that they debuted with half the audience their comedy block anchor, New Girl, started out with a year before. On Twitter, my fellow television critics mused that they’d always thought there was the potential for the bottom to fall out of the broadcast television model, but that they didn’t see it coming so soon. At the same time, cable shows like FX’s Sons of Anarchy were creeping up in the ratings, beating the networks in the core demographic of viewers if not in total viewers. Network television seems to have lost its sense of what it can do better than cable, and to be floundering in developing shows as a result.

But it would be great for network to get its groove back, and not just because it’s one of the few media that can create an ongoing mass cultural phenomenon. As demand grows for alternatives to bundled cable, it’s important for broadcast television to be a vigorous, vibrant alternative to cable networks so it’s in those cable networks’ interests to compete however they can for viewers. And for those of us who love great television, it would be fantastic to see the end of a race to the lowest common denominator, and to see good programming catch on. While there’s no guarantee that doing the right, creative thing will garner network audiences, here are four ideas for how broadcast television can rediscover what makes it unique.

1. Avoid Special Effects Arms Races: Subscription support means that HBO can afford to spend $60 million a season on Game of Thrones, building a complex fictional world that includes castles, dragons, and ice zombies. Network television, especially given declining viewership and correspondingly shrinking ad rates, won’t ever be able to keep up with that kind of investment. So it shouldn’t try, settling for shows that look bad, or that end up blowing their budgets on CGI dinosaurs rather than acting talent. I may not like NBC’s Revolution much, but when it comes to genre, it’s doing the right thing, building a post-apocalyptic society that is dense with forest rather than full of heavily made-up zombies or other magical creatures. Constraints can make for a lot of creativity. Network should accept its limitations, and build smart worlds within them.

2. Shorter Seasons: I’ve written about this repeatedly. But an obsessive focus on producing high numbers of episodes of shows is a great driver of mediocre concepts, and of overextending successful series like How I Met Your Mother. Miniseries and shorter seasons are a great way to attract excellent actors to television, whether it’s Sigourney Weaver in Political Animals, an effort I think was doomed by its time slot or Kevin Bacon, who will arrive on Fox this winter playing an alcoholic FBI agent in The Following. It would also be a way to fit stories to the number of episodes actually needed to tell them, one of the great strengths of British television. And shorter seasons and miniseries would also help solve one of television’s most pernicious scheduling problems: month-long hiatuses on shows that have just begun to hit their stride. The television season is an artificial construction and a not particularly logical one. It’s time to start experimenting with alternatives to it that serve stories and audiences instead.

3. Genuinely Family-Friendly Shows: The success of Downton Abbey is an illustration of a serious gap in the television market: programming that people of all ages can watch, enjoy, and discuss. So much of what’s on television is narrowly targeted or toned by age right now—a show like New Girl wouldn’t even be close to appropriate for a pre-teen audience, but its appeal has a cutoff well inside the target demographic. CBS’s Partners may be an attempt to speak to a younger generation whose friend groups have always included gay couples, but in tone and style, it’s aimed more at older viewers who are still getting used to the idea. Setting aside in-jokes or concepts that are targeted at certain demographics and trying for concepts and tones that are more universal could meet the needs of entire families. The 8 PM hour is considered a dead zone on broadcast television right now, which is too bad. There’s no reason to waste the hour after homework and before a reasonable bed time.

4. Innovate Around Sex And Violence: There’s an odd perception that much of cable television’s edge over broadcast is due to the fact that cable shows can depict sexual and violent situations that would be verboten—or at least risk drawing very heavy fines—on network television. Fox is attempting to chase cable standards with The Following, its extremely violent serial killer show, but across the board, I think that’s a mistake. Too often, cable’s taken its licenses as mandates, and produced sex and violence unmoored from narrative or emotional demands. Network could compete not by courting FCC censure, but by making the leadup to sex sensual and adult, and countering body-of-the-week callousness by making deaths real losses with devastating impact. You don’t have to see a character’s head get bashed in for their death to feel debilitating.