TV Reviews

Do You Still Watch Broadcast Television Shows?

I’ll have to double-check the stats on this, but I’m pretty sure 130 new TV shows have debuted this month, 100 of them on Broadcast TV – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW – just this week alone. (Correction: I may have just made those stats up.) Whatever the exact number, it’s been a lot, yet I just…I just can’t with any of it. If it’s not a streaming or cable show, I struggle to care anymore.

I’ve talked about this before on the site, and on those occasions, the conversation has often veered toward the lack of trust we have with the Broadcast Networks. Whether it was Agent Carter, Firefly, Arrested Development, or any of the dozens of other canceled-too-soon shows, we’ve been burned too many times before. If we don’t fancy such heartbreak again, our time might be better spent elsewhere.

That certainly still applies, but it’s almost background noise for me these days. No one really knows what constitutes a TV hit anymore. As a result, the networks, on average at least, stick with shows longer than they had been. We don’t get nearly as many as the pulled-after-one-week embarrassments anymore. Like a baseball manager trusting a struggling starting pitcher to work things out on the mound, the networks are more willing these days to let new TV shows find an audience.

One Day at a Time was eventually saved by CBS subsidiary Pop TV

This comes at the same time that Netflix has turned into the grim reaper of TV programs, going on a canceling spree so severe it led many online to launch a campaign to “cancel” Netflix – not just literally canceling their subscriptions but also trying to cancel the streaming giant from the pop-culture playing field. Easier said than done, but couple that with rising subscription prices and falling revenues and you can see why Wall Street is losing its shit over Netflix’s valuation right now.

But Netflix is far from the only alternative option to Broadcast. There’s also (deep breath) FX, Comedy Central, USA, TBS, TNT, TruTV, SyFy, Freeform, Nat Geo, Lifetime, BET, Pop TV, AMC, TCM, HBO Now, Amazon, Hulu, CBS All Access, Starz, Epix, Showtime, Shudder, DC Universe, Britbox, Acorn TV, BBC America, Paramount Network, Sundance TV, and IFC (now I pretend to gasp for air) not to mention all those cable stations which specialize in reality TV. (That’s just American TV. Those watching overseas have things like Sky TV, the BBC, and Channel 4 to add to the list of distractions.) It’s more than enough to tell us that if we don’t watch the middlebrow entertainment on Broadcast TV, we absolutely don’t have to.

Except for NBC’s The Good Place. It’s a masterpiece, and I won’t hear otherwise. Fox’s NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine is apparently still great. This Is Us continues to be that show my parents and relatives watch religiously, though not as fervently as they used to. I know several who swear by Fox’s 9-1-1.

Plus, the internet is obsessed with The CWs upcoming “Crisis on Infinite Earths” Arrowverse crossover event. (Erica Durance and Tom Welling are going to be in it now!) Also, I do have a niece who swears by The CW’s Riverdale, but she actually only watches it on Netflix. So, I’m not sure if it really counts for this “in defense of Broadcast” bit I’m doing right now.

When Vox’s Emily Todd VanDerWerff compiled a list of 15 new shows worth checking, declaring “Fall TV is the best it’s been in a decade,” she only picked 7 programs airing on Broadcast. The rest was filled with streaming, cable, and even – thanks to Ken Burns’ Country Music docu-series – PBS.

Still, that ratio – just under half of the best new TV of the moment is on Broadcast – does feel like an improvement. For this Fall TV season at least, there does seem to be a better supply of shows with casts and/or premises worth caring about. For example:

  • Michael Sheen headlining a Hannibal Lecter/Blacklist thing about a convicted serial killer working with his son (NBC’s Prodigal Son)? That’s something, I guess.
  • Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, and Michael Emerson in a “X-Files but with religion instead of aliens” procedural from the team behind The Good Fight (CBS’s Evil)? You had me at “Mike Colter.”
  • Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, and Michael Ealy in a graphic novel adaptation that sounds a lot like “Jessica Jones without superpowers” (ABC’s Stumptown)? You had me at “Cobie Smulders.”
  • Fargo’s Alison Tolman in a vaguely supernatural mystery-thriller from the same team behind Agent Carter (ABC’s Emergence)? Huh. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m still mourning Tolman’s last TV show, 2017’s excellent, but quickly canceled Downward Dog. Plus, the Agent Carter producers – Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters – have become the queens of canceled-too-soon network shows (Reaper, Resurrection, Kevin Probably Saves the World) which probably should have been on cable.
  • Walton Goggins, Michaela Watkins, and Rob Corddry in a CBS sitcom about a recently widowed father re-entering the dating scene (CBS’s The Unicorn)? That…sounds awful, but look at that cast!
  • Two different shows about a man – Kal Penn in one, Bradley Whitford in the other – turning to a community project – teaching undocumented immigrants vs. coaching a small-town choir – to help turn his life around (NBC’s Sunnyside & Perfect Harmony)? I can maybe try one or the other but not both.

But what all of these shows – well not so much the rather serialized Emergence – have in common is they will ultimately adhere to the Broadcast playbook. You know the one, it’s where every show ultimately adheres to a repeatable formula and you basically get the same thing every week.

Two and a Half Men/Big Bang Theory/Mom producer Chuck Lorre recently told THR the best advice he ever got from a network suit was that he could never assume his show would be getting the same audience every week. New viewers come at unexpected moments, and old viewers might take a couple of weeks off. The goal, then, is to produce something which can be easily understood and consumed every week which means your storylines and characters never significantly change. Riding that formula turned Lorre – and countless others like him – into a multi-millionaire.

The “familiar, repeatable, unchanging” formula is no longer the uniform orthodoxy in the land, but it still lingers. Netflix and its like have given us the age of the binge, and Broadcast simply isn’t set up for that. The networks have tried their hand at edgy, highly serialized dramas and genre experiments and they rarely last. Instead, we have one Lost-imitator after another.

Lately, the networks – which seem to change leadership every 2-4 years – have been stuck in a cycle of veering back and forth between prioritizing safe, aggressively boring, repeatable shows and far more daring, interesting shows which could at least be talked about in the same breath as cable/streaming shows. This year, it seems like they’re trying to split the difference.

A show like Stumptown, for example, is instantly familiar, but just different and star-studded enough to feel notable. All of the episodes past the pilot will repeat the same procedural formula of following Cobie Smulders as her war vet-turned-private-detective works quirky cases while also processing her PTSD and revealing more about her past. However, any will they/won’t they between her and Michael Ealy’s cop character is somewhat defused in the very first episode since the pair hooks up halfway through when she uses him as a brief distraction from her problems.

Our collective TV IQ at this point is so high that we demand such deviations from the norm. In fact, subverting long-held TV tropes has pretty much become its own TV trope. However, I’m reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years with a friend about why she rarely went to movies anymore. “I go where the best stories are, and these days that means TV, not film.” It’s not just that, though. The best stories are usually happening on cable and streaming, not broadcast.

So, I applaud the networks for trying harder this year. In fact, I might just give a couple of these new shows a chance. Based on the pilot, Stumptown seems vaguely promising. But if asked to choose between watching Walton Goggins in CBS’s The Unicorn or in HBO’s Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones or – going further back, FX’s Justified – the choice seems fairly obvious.

Also, I just finished the second episode of FX’s American Horror Story: 1984, and the series has already added ghosts, gay porn stars, and a wedding massacre torn out of Kill Bill with yet more Ryan Murphy camp/insanity surely on the way. I’m not 100% convinced anything we’re seeing is actually as it seems. My working theory: there might be a Cabin in the Woods twist in the works here. It will all probably go off the rails soon enough, as every AHS season eventually does, but it’s a pretty fun ride. I’d rarely describe anything on broadcast TV that same way.

What about you? Are there any new or current broadcast network shows which pique your interest? Or has that ship sailed for you? Let me know in the comments.

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6 comments

  1. I’m just about to do a post about the stuff I’ve been watching this month. I no longer watch anything on broadcast tv, beyond the CW, for the crossover superhero shows and Black Lightning.

    I just watched AHS, and I’m going to stick with it this season after skipping the last one. I did see Prodigal Son, which was trying really hard, and not “quite” working, for me. I just started Titans second season, and I enjoyed the Treadstone preview, which is based on the Bourne movies. It doesn’t air until Oct. 15th, however.

    My mom does watch some network shows, like Empire, and 9-1-1, but I’m in no mood to watch any cop or lawyer procedurals at this time.

    I am looking forward to Watchmen, airing on HBO, later this year, and the last season of Supernatural, on the CW.

    1. The CW is so weird. It’s a broadcast network that behaves more like a streamer, entirely because it has been so highly subsidized by its Netflix deal for so long. (They allowed that deal to expire and are leaning heavily on funneling more people to their own app, CWSeed, this year. All episodes of every current season will be available to stream the next day with ads.) So, it almost feels like The CW is in its own separate category of broadcast, but only technically. That being said, some of their shows are entirely in that broadcast mold of repeatable procedurals. iZombie was. Supernatural is and will continue to be for another season. BTW, I’m with you on Supernatural. I should have mentioned it in the piece. In fact, I probably should have just listed all of the current broadcast shows I actually watch. They are as follows:

      The Good Place
      Legends of Tomorrow
      Supernatural

      Actually, that’s about it. I will drop in for “Crisis on Infinite Earths” because even though I’ve quit Flash, Arrow, Black Lightning, and Supergirl I’m still a nerd with two eyes. How could I not want to watch? Plus, it will be the only chance to see any of the Legends characters until next year since CW saved the show for midseason.

      I’d say your description of Prodigal Son broadly fits my experience with all of the new broadcast shows I’ve watched this week – Stumptown and Evil in addition to Prodigal Son. They’re all trying really hard but they don’t completely work for me, somewhat because I can feel how torn they are between wanting to be a crazy cable show and adhering to the demands of broadcast.

      I’m also with you in that I have a mother who is far more old-fashioned and though she will happily watch a streaming or cable series she is far less selective than me and enjoys the familiar comforts of a broadcast network procedural.

      Watchmen…Damon Lindelof doesn’t really make enjoyable shows. He makes “important” shows that are challenging and aim to elevate the medium. The Leftovers, for example, is one of the most aggressively depressing TV shows I’ve ever seen. It’s also quite possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. So, I am 100% going to watch Watchmen. I’m just mentally preparing myself for the “prestige drama” version of Watchmen.” Not the Zack Snyder version. And definitely as far away from the CW superheroverse as you can get. But something allegorical, slow-moving, deep, and rewarding.

  2. Broadcast TV is just boring. That’s a generalisation, admittedly. I recently binge watched “Good Girls” season 1 and 2 because Christina Hendricks. After I started watching, I heard people compare to another show, calling it either a female “Breaking Bad” or “diet Breaking Bad”. I’m mostly bored by it but still binged through it. I feel like the writers have padded out the series so that each season will have the required number of episodes because there is so much bland stuff.

    Maybe it’s just my choice of what to binge. I find Netflix shows such as “GLOW” and “Stranger Things” seem to have less padding, better writing.

    Mmm… “The Walking Dead” is coming back soon. For an AMC show, it’s got a fair bit of padding.

    1. I think your first line said it best: “Broadcast TV is just boring.” It doesn’t quite blanket-statement cover everything, but it does seem to broadly apply to most of what passes for broadcast television. Good Girls, btw, I’m sorta with you. I watched it for the “female Breaking Bad” and “Christina Hendricks” of it all but I binged the first season and never went back, mostly because of the padding and also because there’s just so much else on TV that I completely forgot about Good Girls. I’d already moved on to binging another Christina Hendricks show, IFC’s quietly excellent Hap & Leonard, which is what Hendricks did right before Good Girls.

      However, as you point out the “padding” issue is not exclusive to broadcast. Walking Dead is certainly a repeat offender, and there is some reporting indicating “padding” is what ultimately killed the Marvel Netflix universe – Marvel Television saw no problem with continuing to produce 13-episode seasons that really only needed to be 10 at most and Netflix wanted to cut the bullshit and get things down to 10. Both sides stuck to their positions and ultimately walked. I don’t know how true that actually is, and even if it is true I don’t think it’s the only reason for the split. However, Netflix would have a point here – the shows were too damn long.

      1. I forgot to say that when I am really unkind, I compare “Good Girls” unfavourably to “The Room”. Both have a character declare that they have cancer to gain sympathy and neither do much with the revelation. Although “Good Girls” manage to get about 3 scenes out of it before it is forgotten, “The Room” is just greatly quotable – “The Room” “wins”.

        Arg. Even the second season feels like another season of tires spinning. I recall Vince Gilligan saying he didn’t want BB to turn into a show where every week Walt makes money then hits a problem and loses and has to make the money back again. “Good Girls” still hasn’t broken out of that and it’s tiring.

        There’s a lot more competition for viewers these days. There’s especially a lot more quality for woman in starring roles too. I say that without looking at any statistics or anything. I do want to see “Fleabag” now and am keen for another season of GLOW.

        What’s the benefit of having 3 extra filler episodes over tighter episodes? If it was on broadcast TV, that would be a lot more advertising revenue and 3 hours of not having Simpsons or some other show doing repeats just before Christmas but it’s Netflix. Is there some customer data analysis that says that it a person binges 10+ episodes, they are less likely to subscribe to Disney or Amazon? Do the people who still buy physical media think it’s better to buy a box set of 5 discs over 4 discs?

      2. That was my general read on Good Girls after the first season – it’s a cable drama stuck in a network habitat and thus has to add so much unnecessary padding. By the end of the first season, the storyline with Matthew Lillard was still kinda hanging there, if I recall, and it did seem as if they were never going to do much with it. It was just a time-filler.

        As for the quality roles for women, I also feel that this has entered into that “you don’t need to see the latest statistics to know that it’s gotten better.” If USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative put out new numbers tomorrow telling us the ratio of on-screen roles for women hasn’t actually improved in a statistically significant way, there would still be this sense of “What about Laura Linney in Ozark? Or the entire cast of GLOW? Or Fleabag? Or seemingly every show not named Power on Starz? Or everyone on Unbelievable and Undone? Or..” and so on. There are so many good choices out there.

        What you are getting at with that last point about episode totals has actually been a sticky issue in the industry for a while. It’s partially why the various guilds have either threatened to go on strike or, in the case of the WGA, are currently at war with the talent agencies. The reality, as you astutely observed, is that the longer seasons on network TV make sense because it affords the station’s extra advertising revenue. In the old days when there wasn’t so damn much vertical integration, the networks wanted as many episodes as possible because the only thing they made money off from TV shows was advertising, and the actual production company’s making the TV shows wanted to make at least 100 episodes because they would get their payday from selling their show into syndication.

        Now that the networks rarely dare to air anything that’s not being produced in-house by their sister studio responsible for TV production, that calculus has change. Plus, Netflix has upeneded the old formula. Now certain network or cable shows have their entire budgets covered by Netflix money since the streamer likes to make a splash and buy the digital syndication rights after a show’s first season or even sometimes before it has even premiered. The speculation, then, is that the reason so many shows have now been whittled down to 10-episodes or less per season is because Netflix pays everything upfront. There is no backend for anyone, the way there would be if you stick it out with a show for 5 years and then get set for life with passive residuals income. So, all involved wants to get paid right away, and Netflix, which has been in debut for most of its existence, wants to spend less per season than it had been in the early days when House of Cards would get 13, all the Netflix shows would get 13 per season, and Arrested Development would get 18. (Not to mention Netflix now spending over $160m on a Martin Scorsese movie and something similar on an upcoming Ryan Reynolds/Gal Gadot/The Rock movie).

        While all of that is playing out in streaming, the rest of the studio suits in Hollywood have fallen in love with the idea of short seasons. Audiences are getting more and more accustomed to it, in fact. The problem is there is a trickle-down effect which is hitting the bottom half of the industry hard. All those below-the-line talents and crew members have to be even more nomadic than normal because jobs which used to promise guaranteed income for 13-22 episodes has now been cut in half. On top of that, the studios then try to extend holds on their contracts and prevent them from working elsewhere in-between seasons, which is extra complicated since the streamers don’t make their cancel/renew decisions on a rigid schedule the way the networks do. Stranger Things, for example, was just renewed for a 4th season – 3 months after it’s last one! It’s harder to make ends meet that way unless you’re freed up enough to be able to travel to Georgia and back to California and then up to Vancouver or wherever else there is currently a hub of productions.

        As for your speculation about what role physical media might play in all of this, my guess is not much, but that’s more my assumption than anything I’ve specifically looked into.

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