Network TV is in Trouble. Here’s Why They’re Where They Are
A popular saying is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In Hollywood, that now seems to apply to the fall lineup for network television.
I have spent years arguing at the networks that if they want to try and gain audience, they have to stop giving us the same lineups of remakes, reboots and procedurals. This past weekend, that’s all that seems to be on all five networks starting in September of 2021. Even those trying to make pitches seem to be barely masked cries of surrender. I’d actually mention what some of those pretenders were, but I kind of went numb after seeing NBC devoting two nights to Dick Wolf and not even bothering to say whether two of its stronger players — Good Girls and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist — will be back in any form.
I’ve wasted an endless amount of words about how frustrating it is to see networks responding to cable and streaming much better original material by either showing the most recent NCIS franchise or seeing their best material end up cancelled and going to streaming. That being said, I do have a certain sympathy for the networks at this stage. What’s the point of coming up with brilliant creative programming that has a limited audience if the Emmys would rather recognize whatever Amazon is doing?
Because this is such a complicated picture, I think it’s worth looking at how we got here in the first place, because it isn’t as simple as The Sopranos showing up on HBO. In fact, that actually inspired a counterrevolution.
When The Sopranos took the world by storm in 1999, network television didn’t throw in the towel. If anything, their collective lineup for the 1999–2000 season was one of the most brilliant in history. The West Wing would be the biggest critical and game-changing success, but there were several smaller triumphs. ABC came up with Once & Again, a wonderful series about two divorced forty-ish parents (Sela Ward and Billy Campbell) finding love again. CBS produced the remarkable series Now and Again, a bizarre sci-fi series that is still bemoaned two decades after being cancelled, though not nearly as much as the equally beloved Freaks and Geeks. (I really hope the guy who thought this Judd Apatow guy wouldn’t amount to anything got sacked quickly.) And that fall would bring one of the most delightful comedy series Malcolm in the Middle, a show that among its countless other virtues, introduced the world to Bryan Cranston. The networks showed that they were more than willing to fight it out with HBO on their own terms.
The first crack in the networks façade came the following year with the debut of CSI. Now for the record, I thought the initial seasons of the flagship series were very good. William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger were exceptionally gifted in the early years and there were some interesting stories. And its worth noting a lot of the awards groups thought the same; the series received several acting nominations and the show itself won the SAG award for Best Ensemble in 2004. By that time, however, CBS started to franchise the series with increasingly diminishing returns and making the flagship show more and more of a joke. It was practically a parody by the time CSI: New York came out.
Even so, you could make the argument -pretty convincingly — that these hits show did give CBS room to do some experimentation. I was a fan in the early days of Without a Trace — the Anthony LaPaglia series that eventually took down ER — and it created some truly brilliant comedies, such as How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. And it would even occasionally venture outside the comfort zone — there’s no way Joan of Arcadia would been greenlit had there not been more successful series.
And the major networks were more willing to experiment. I’ve already written about ABC’s renaissance during the 2004–2005 season, but it led to some similar brilliant shows that didn’t fit any genre time — Ugly Betty, Brothers and Sisters, and one of my great loves, Pushing Daisies. Fox, which had always danced to its own drummer, created 24 and House in the midst of its American Idol craze. Even NBC, which would go through a period of increasingly diminishing returns in the mid 2000’s would come up with some truly exceptional comedies, not just 30 Rock and The Office, but also Community. And even though HBO would dominate the nominating process, the networks would continue to put up a credible fight.
So when did it go wrong? The argument is often the combined factors of the writers strike of 2007, combined with basic cable networks like AMC and FX entering the fray in a big way that same year. That argument doesn’t completely hold water. The networks kept battling for three to four years afterwards and had a lot of success, mostly in comedies. Fox would create the genre defying Glee, ABC would keep up the fight with The Middle and Modern Family and NBC would fight on with Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. CBS was leaning more on its procedurals, but its worth remembering that The Good Wife emerged in this period.
The true inflection point, in my mind, came in 2012. It’s not so much that network TV wasn’t represented in the Drama category for the first time in Emmy history; its what was there. I don’t so much blame the presence of Game of Thrones as I do Downton Abbey.
I know I’ll probably get castigated by its fans, but I never found Downton Abbey significantly better than any of the other PBS series that had aired all the years before that — it was simply a variation on Upstairs, Downstairs at best. But there was a clear message that I think the networks took to heart — the worst period drama will never get the same respect from the Emmys as the best contemporary drama. And there were a lot of good ones — not just The Good Wife and Parenthood, but also Nashville and Person of Interest. (This rule also applied to cable; I could never understand why Justified an immensely superior FX drama, never got anything like the recognition it deserved from the Emmys.) And the logic seemed only to apply to British period pieces; other great period pieces didn’t get acknowledged in favor of the glut for Downton Abbey; Masters of Sex and for much of its run The Americans, were similarly given short shrift.
During the extraordinary fifth season of The Good Wife, Alicia finds herself dully engrossed by a series called Darkness at Noon, a kind of True Detective/Breaking Bad parody that checks all the boxes for what seems to be ‘Peak TV’. At the time, I thought creators Michelle and Robert King were making a cheap joke at the series that were all the attention. Now I see it was a cry of pain for the shift in how Emmys voters would regard broadcast TV. And Emmy voters didn’t seem to care; despite having one of the great seasons of all time and getting five other nominations, the Emmys ignored The Good Wife for Best Drama and nominated True Detective instead.
They kept fighting in the comedy category for awhile, but HBO now seemed to much of fighter. I’ve never understood the obsession with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Veep over the far superior (and more optimistic) Parks and Recreation. There are still a lot of great comedies on network TV, but its hard to win over so many louder, more cynical shows. NBC is still fighting the fight (The Good Place was a remarkable achievement) but I don’t expect it to last much longer.
The last real push by the networks came in 2015. Fox had one of the biggest successes in recent years with Empire, a series that broke every single rule that networks (and even some cable) seemed willing to try. ABC kept gambling on Shondaland, but during the spring How to Get Away With Murder made space for American Crime, an anthology series that took a long look at some of the gravest issues facing our world and featured some of the best writing and acting on any format. That year, Viola Davis won Best Actress in a Drama and American Crime got twelve nominations in the Limited Series category, and Regina King won the first of four Emmys she would get during the decade. But the fact that Empire despite all the raves, couldn’t get into the Best Drama category and Downton Abbey still could, sent a clear message. When This is Us was nominated two years later for Best Drama, it was clear that this was the last cry of a dying field. I don’t know when or if we’ll ever see another network series nominated for Best Drama.
So yes, I understand that the networks aren’t trying. But I can also see the point. Unlike their cable or streaming counterparts, they have to make revenue. And if the revenue keeps shrinking, where’s the benefit in experimentation. I’m not stunned that NBC and CBS have gone into streaming programming or that much of the more creative series are now there. Television is always about eyeballs and there are a lot fewer of them watching the networks. The fact that they have a lot more places to go and better things to see there is a bigger issue, but I just don’t see an easy solution. What I do know is that bringing back CSI and yet another Law and Order franchise won’t cut it. At some point, some network executive will have to go for broke and risk everything on a big change. I don’t think any of them have the stones to do it.