Back in the day, the basic household didn’t have cable. Everybody had the four basic channels (FOX, NBC, ABC and CBS), PBS, a home shopping network, the WB/CW and maybe a TV Guide channel. That meant anybody who produced TV needed shows to be easily digestible and widely accessible.
Viewers needed to be able to jump in week to week and watch whatever was airing that week without needing to see the previous week’s episode. There were occasional story arcs of multiple episodes, but for the most part every episode was its own self-contained unit.
Thirty minutes or an hour is generally not long enough to tell a fully fleshed out story, so television got a reputation of shallow, guilty-pleasure entertainment. The Big 4 networks largely have stuck to that model, and have looked on while cable networks have turned that model into a shambling corpse waiting for an ax through the head.
Not that long ago, networks like AMC and FX were nothing special. AMC was an abbreviation that actually stood for something (American Movie Classics), and all it did was buy the rights to old movies and show them on loop.
FX (which originally had a lower-case “f”) exclusively aired repeats of FOX shows from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and its only originally productions were multiple live broadcasts from the same apartment that focused on broad topics ranging from pets to music.
Both networks made slight changes to their models over the years, but largely stayed the same. AMC continued showing classic movies, and FX continued showing reruns of hit shows from the main FOX network. But for both channels, things began to change in 2002.
AMC always had run old films uncut, unedited and with no commercial breaks. It was a premium channel at the time, so it made money off subscriptions. But in 2002, the network decided to insert commercials into its programming, which required editing films for length.
The network also shifted its focus from classic movies and began showing more contemporary ones. It began re-branding, eliminating the full name “American Movie Classics” and sticking with just AMC. With the ad revenue it was now receiving, it was able to remove itself from premium status and become a basic cable network.
After a few years of mostly showing documentaries and one failed reality show, the network executives tried their hand at scripted television. They took their first shot at a drama script that had been turned down by premium channels HBO and Showtime, called Mad Men.
FX was a few years ahead of that curve. At the same time AMC decided to begin editing films and adding commercials, FX first decided to try its own programming independent of its parent company. It hit critical gold with its first show, The Shield, and ratings gold with its second show, Nip/Tuck.
After the network hit with its first two dramas, it decided to give comedies a shot and launched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia three years later. It also was wildly successful.
With both AMC and FX having a virtual 100 percent success rate on launching new shows, both shifted their primetime focus to scripted programming. Since they didn’t require the same ratings levels as the Big 4 networks, they could take chances on more controversial shows that would attract niche audiences.
What followed was an assembly line of critically-lauded dramas in the span of a few years: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story.
All of these shows did away with the network model of telling easily-understood stories that viewers could pop in and out of week to week and miss nothing. They instead focused on morally grey central characters and their internal struggles, often within lives of crime.
The focus on anti-hero dramas created some of the most fascinating character studies in the history of any storytelling medium. With the ability to tell more personal, intimate stories over the course of entire seasons, these shows built passionate fan bases and began piling up Emmy nominations and wins.
These kinds of shows were not necessarily brand new. HBO had made its name on that kind of programming. Hell, it even built it into its slogan – “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” – with the implication that normal TV was shallow and mindless, while HBO was deep and thought-provoking.
But people had to pay extra for HBO, and the majority of its original programming came on Sunday nights, which meant it largely was appealing to a different audience as the Big 4 networks. AMC and FX were available as part of any basic cable package, and FX ran its original programming throughout the week, which meant it was in direct competition with the Big 4.
That competition might originally have seemed like a bad idea. Why try to fight these four behemoths that have built audiences over the course of 50 years when you’re just a fledgling cable network with no name recognition?
The Big 4 likely felt the same way, and did nothing to change their programming approach. But FX slowly began to chip away at the networks’ ratings lead, gradually stealing viewers. And now, despite being available to significantly fewer viewers, FX shows are consistently competitive in ratings with their Big 4 counterparts.
The most successful cable ratings juggernaut is Sons of Anarchy, which beats its network competition virtually every week. Last night (Tuesday, Dec. 4), Sons of Anarchy had a 2.4 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic, which is advertisers’ main focus. That tied NBC’s average for the night, and soundly beat both ABC and parent FOX. So basically, the only Big 4 network that beat Sons of Anarchy was CBS, mainly because it aired the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
So now cable programming is crushing networks in quality and consistently competing in ratings. This past year, not a single broadcast show was nominated for Best Drama. Looking down the Emmy nominations and winners is a Who’s Who of cable programming, with Modern Family sprinkled in as broadcast’s only real contributor.
So while network television has been chugging along, happy to change nothing about itself, cable programming has been pulling light years ahead in quality. The real shame is that it isn’t impossible for networks to air more adventurous programs.
Obviously, being able to curse and show nudity helps cable shows depict a more mature show. But most people aren’t watching cable because “Oh my God, they can show side boob and say ‘Shit.’” They’re watching because the quality of storytelling is exponentially higher than what they can find on the Big 4.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Talented writers can make almost any setting interesting as long as the show’s world is inhabited by interesting characters. The skill of the writers of shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy is that we genuinely care about people who are awful human beings.
Lost is the last network show to successfully have that kind of focus on morally grey characters. The entire basis of that show was that most of the people on the island didn’t want to get off because they had awful lives, which was so because they were bad people. Lost was a ratings king during its heyday, but it was a monumental struggle just to get that show on the air.
Lost and all of these cable shows prove that people are drawn to complicated, interesting characters and stories. Stories like that can be written without meth cooks or serial killers, but networks seem to have no interest in trying to find them.
It’s much easier to roll out some new asinine comedy from Chuck Lorre or formulaic drama from Shonda Rhimes, so that’s all networks do. In the past, that was fine because viewers didn’t know any better. The only other choice they had was to shell out a bunch of money for HBO.
But now that viewers can watch Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy with a basic cable subscription, they’re starting to realize just how much their quality dwarfs the shows on network TV. People are beginning to choose thought-provoking over mindless, and it’s left network TV in major trouble.