PJ Media

The Death of Broadcast Network Series

One thing you’ve got to love about the Golden Globe Awards is that they get straight to the point — ixnay on the song and dance in favor of just handing out awards. The practical necessity for this, too, is that the stars are imbibing during the show and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association needs to get through the categories while the A-listers are still relatively lucid.

But these awards also got to the point in another way, and have ever gradually for a number of years now: Broadcast networks cannot make shows anymore that can even hold a candle to the original series of cable networks.

Sure, when it comes to awards time, Hollywood gets all gooey about the shows that portray, well, Hollywood — think 30 Rock and Entourage. But as a whole, Hollywood’s network offerings have been irreversibly overtaken by cable — and it’s not because you can drop F-bombs or have Roman orgies on HBO without being chased by the FCC pack. Years ago, who would have ever thought that AMC, TNT, or the USA cable networks would be doing much beyond edited movies and syndicated re-runs? (And you can bet that HBO is kicking itself for having passed up Mad Men, created by a onetime Sopranos producer and writer.)

Some of those old TV shows were great; who could pass up a marathon of The Jeffersons on TVLand nowadays? I was a child during the fun, campy era of Magnum PI, Simon & Simon, and Night Court, but as I got older — and reality TV made inroads against scripted fare — the choices of entertaining series pretty much narrowed to Frasier and Alias, and the brilliant variety show In Living Color.

Meanwhile, here came Comedy Central with South Park, a refreshing blast of political incorrectness and libertarian messages wrapped up in side-splitting humor and crudely drawn characters. There was HBO stalwart Sex and the City — with a strong theme of friendship, witty writing, and the uncanny ability to, over six seasons, include a profile of every type of man modern woman has ever encountered — and fellow awards darling The Sopranos. Sure, there have been cable duds — anybody remember the Showtime series Sherman Oaks? — but all in all, cable networks have ironed out the magic formula of how to make shows that audiences love and will pay to see, and also garner critical acclaim and rack up awards in the process.

Is it because of these shows’ provocativeness? No, it boils down to creative freedom. Writers are attracted to a venue where the FCC isn’t hanging over your pen, not to mention a network willing to spend money on period pieces and the like. Good actors are drawn by the opportunity to work with writers and directors like Alan Ball and producers like Tom Hanks, and the projects take on a think-outside-the-box life of their own. Sometimes it’s a great miniseries like John Adams, and sometimes it’s a great series whose episodes get played over and over on the on-demand channels.

Pay cable series have been a boon to history lovers. The HBO series Rome, produced in conjunction with the BBC, brought a new dimension to the murder of Julius Caesar and the madness of Mark Antony, while conveying another thought to the viewer: No wonder Jesus, to arrive some half century later, was so badly needed. Though not a big award winner during the series run, the show’s avid fans may be treated to a Rome movie in the future (though let’s hope it’s infinitely better than the Sex and the City transition to screen).

Showtime also struck gold with The Tudors, with Peter O’Toole as Pope Paul III as probably the most inspired casting of all. Though the show drags a bit more than Rome, the great characters such as Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More have made the show well worth watching. Season three returns this year with Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who lost out to HBO’s Gabriel Byrne at the Globes for best actor in a dramatic series) going through wives No. 3 through No. 5. (Maria Doyle Kennedy, excellent as Wife No. 1 Katherine of Aragon, was honored at the Irish Film and Television Awards for her work in the series but never here in the U.S.)

When it comes to modern-day fare, HBO has a huge audience hit with the dramedy True Blood (have a show’s opening credits ever been so entertaining?), for which Anna Paquin (surprisingly) won the best actress Globe. And Showtime continues to get shafted by a lack of awards for what could be the best series on television right now, Dexter. Season three was full of hairpin turns — propelled by a surprising Jimmy Smits as a district attorney and the perfectly chilling Michael C. Hall — that left me convinced this is some of the best writing done for the screen in a long time.

When it comes to awards seasons, 30 Rock will continue to reap plaudits as Hollywood loves seeing itself on screen. But that won’t make up the ground that the broadcast networks have lost to cable when it comes to the future of television. It’s not about being able to use naughty words that the broadcast boys can’t, but about taking a chance on creative, fresh ideas for the small screen.