I have been thinking a lot about the state of television lately. Most of the new shows of the season have premiered, and while there are a few stories of success, there certainly is no "break-out hit". Revolution's numbers are actually increasing week to week and Arrow on The CW, so far, is providing fairly strong ratings for the network. Otherwise, that is about it. Following a season that saw only a few new returning shows, it seems to be becoming increasingly difficult for a show to become a break-out hit, or really, even a success. The standard of what makes a show successful has also become relative. Revenge, which is considered a hit, is only getting a 2.7 rating and a 6 share this season. I will not go in to the metrics of ratings but rather will say that isn't great. Just a few years ago with those ratings, Revenge would possibly be on the brink of cancellation, but instead, at this moment, it is one of ABC's most successful dramas. However, on Sunday night, the previously little known network AMC, aired the highest rated scripted series of the season so far – The Walking Dead. So what does this mean for the future of networks and scripted television as a whole? Well, that is a tough question to which I'm not sure anybody quite has an answer yet, but I would like to take a look at some of the problems and eventual changes.
Looking back at when broadcast network television started in the 1940s, there was not much choice. Really, there were only the three or four (if you count DMN in the beginning) broadcast networks and if a person wanted to watch television on any given night they only had a couple shows to choose from. This isn't to say that every single show was successful (because, of course, some still didn't resonate with audiences) but the chances of succeeding and get good ratings was much higher. However, today when looking at broadcast network television, there are 5 major networks (including The CW), yet there are so many cable networks it is difficult to get an accurate count of how many are actually currently airing original series. Things were a little bit different when cable networks first came around. Many of them had very specific programming and targets, and many only aired some form of reality TV, or even music videos (oh, how I miss old MTV). Then, HBO began to create original TV programming and everything changed.
HBO was originally a network that aired only movies. However, in 1997 it launched Oz, its first scripted television program that launched the quality programming genre. Because the show aired on a Premium Channel in which money was made from subscriptions instead of advertising, the standards that were placed on most dramatic series did not apply. HBO was actually able to show life in prison without downplaying it for broad (and FCC regulated) audiences. HBO's programming trend continued with the development of The Sopranos which, when looking at it, is probably the show that really changed television. The Sopranos was a huge success for the networks and was incredibly financially lucrative. It also started a new trend in television called "quality programming.” I mentioned this in my Marathon to Start: 24, but because audiences responded so well to The Sopranos, writers, directors and networks realized that audiences appreciated shows with better writing and production value, and ones that had a more cinematic quality. This began to be reflected in drama programming across the board and through all network and cable networks. Shows like The Wire, 24, and The Shield, were created and thus, a new Golden Era of Television was born. While HBO became the network most well known for quality programming and dramas, the broadcast networks were still in the game at this point. For the most part due to a little show called Lost. While many broadcast networks were starting to worry that cable networks were stealing away all of their viewers with their quality programming, Lost began airing and put ABC back on the map, and assuaged some of that fear. It had an average weekly rating of over 16 million viewers for the first season and served to prove that viewers were still willing to invest in and watch a broadcast network show.
Ever since HBO began successfully airing quality series, more and more cable networks have been taking on this same format and creating original programming. FX, Showtime, and SyFy are all competitors, but the game-changer of a network that came out of nowhere was AMC. It originally was a network that aired classic movies (hence its name 'American Movie Classics'), but in 2007 they also changed their format and debuted Mad Men. The critically acclaimed television show has won four Emmys and increased its ratings every year. However, it was when AMC started airing Breaking Bad in 2008 that the network really solidified itself as one of the top cable programmers.
Currently, it is with AMC's show The Walking Dead that the climate has really become interesting, and I think we are truly seeing a complete shift in the state and business of television. While all of the cable shows I have mentioned have garnered critical acclaim, as well as pop culture success and cache, the one thing they have not had is broadcast network sized ratings. That isn't to say they haven't been extremely successful shows. It is simply that the standard for success of a cable network show is nowhere near the ratings needed to make a broadcast network show successful. (If Arrested Development had aired on HBO, its average of 6.2 million viewers would have been much higher than the highest rated episode of Game of Thrones, which clocked in around 4 million viewers. It's possible Arrested, would not have even had this high of ratings on the premium subscriber network, but it is very likely its cult audience would have made it last much longer than its three seasons on FOX.) This season of The Walking Dead, however, has changed all of that. The show based on the comic book about the zombie apocalypse right now has had the highest rated episode of scripted television to air on broadcast or cable…in a year. One whole year. This is partially because ratings on broadcast network television have dropped so drastically, but this means that there is a very good chance The Walking Dead could end up as the highest rated scripted series on all of television this season. That would be a groundbreaking moment for a cable show to win that honor, and one that I think truly indicates the solidified change of the current television model.
So the question is what does this all mean and where are we going? I am not one to be pessimistic and say that eventually broadcast networks will cease to exist, but I fear that we may be on our way there in some form. Now, this isn't to say that I believe people will stop watching television. I think actually the exact opposite. I have a feeling that people are and will continue to consume more entertainment in their homes than ever before. It just might not be in the same format. I think the move truly will be from focusing on watching a specific network to watching great content. It is already happening in the way that audiences are watching television these days. There is no longer a sense of brand loyalty. It doesn't matter if a show is on HBO, NBC, or AMC. What matters is the quality of the show. This is apparent in the success of The Walking Dead. Audiences aren't watching it because it is on a specific network; they are watching it because it is a damned good, well written, original, and extremely engaging show. While recording the podcast this week, Breaking Bad and Mad Men with those two going off the air. My answer was I don't know – but it was I don't know because I don't think it matters, because in a way, I don't think networks really matter anymore. I can't say who it will be because really, it will be whichever outlet comes up with the highest quality content that resonates with audiences. Now, this very well, could be a network show (though, seeing most of the fare, the only one that I think has that potential is The Following that begins airing on FOX in January), but we are no longer living in the days where it will have to be a network show.asked me an interesting question that I wish I had expanded on a little more. He asked what network I think will come up with a show to replace
More and more people are consuming content in differing ways. For the first time this season I have purchased several shows on iTunes after I missed them, and I watch most of the shows that I marathon via Netflix or Hulu. If I didn't pay attention, I might not even know what network a show has originally aired on or was created by. This creates a big problem for networks, which in the past have relied heavily on on-air advertising, brand recognition (best example being NBC'S Must See TV Thursday night line-ups), and shows having strong lead-ins when viewers are just too lazy to change a channel. None of these things exist with the time shifting experience of watching televisions, and I really think networks need to start planning for that and figuring out to adapt to these new models.
The biggest shift, and possibly the best tell of where the state of content will go, might be in February when David Fincher's new series House of Cards will premiere on Netflix. The series stars Kevin Spacey, and the big question is if those two names alone will be enough to draw in new subscribers and bring people to watch shows on the service. Not only does Netflix have this series, but the true test might be next summer when Arrested Development finally debuts on the streaming service. The demand for that show has grown exponentially since it went off the air, and the fact that original episodes will air on Netflix just might be enough to make it be taken seriously as a new original content delivery platform.
Here is the good news, because I don't want to be completely alarmist about the state of television, there is hope. If any anybody is listening and able to figure out how to truly capitalize on all of the new technology available, there is a very good chance that another and newer golden era of television could soon be triggered. I'm not sure that it will even be called television, but perhaps it will be a golden era of series content. Also, because of the success of series like The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, audiences are sending a message that we want good, new and original shows. We will watch them. We will not accept recycled concepts and ideas, and will not stand for comedies that aren't funny, or dramas that aren't captivating. Give us good content (and shows about drugs, zombies, and ad men) and we will watch it. However, that is what we must do – keep watching shows. Watch House of Cards and see if it's good. Check out The Following and the next series that you see a commercial for that doesn't look too good and give it a shot. More than anything, just keep watching everything and don't give up on television. There is nothing like a good hour of a series that will let you escape for a while, and nothing that can fix your mood like great TV marathon. More than anything, we just have to keep watching, because although it is evolving before out eyes, we cannot let television die.