Are the networks devoid of smart?

It’s not really a new question. In fact, people have asked it a lot. And in the void of new episodes of TV, I was thinking about it.

I remember when The Sopranos started on HBO. Now, I’ve never had HBO, so I never saw this series or Sex and the City until they were syndicated many years later. So it would bug the crap out of me to watch the Emmys or the Golden Globes and find all the awards going to shows I’ve never seen. And it still happens with HBO series and Showtime, too!

But now it’s spread a little further. If you look at the most recent list of Golden Globe nominees, you’ll see that the four basic networks–ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX–aren’t nearly as represented as HBO, Showtime, and even TNT.

And why is that the case? Well, it seems to me that the four basic networks just don’t really have the time or money to spend on “smart” TV.

But let’s backtrack. What do I mean by “smart”? Well, I don’t mean “creative,” though there have been a number of cancellations for creative shows. I never watched Pushing Daisies, but you can’t disagree that it had a creative background and premise. Eli Stone, too. So it’s not necessarily creativity that I’m looking at.

Take a look at Studio 60. It was a very “smart” show. You really had to tune in and pay attention to really enjoy the show because there were a lot of storylines that fell below an episode’s plot–like Danny’s past addictions or Tom’s brother at war. It provoked thought.

Now, we take a look at shows like 90210 and The Office, which are basically spin-off/remakes of older, fresher favorites. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Office, but we’ve moved away from subtle humor in past seasons, and we’re now to the slapstick variety and cardboard characters.

And yes, there are exceptions. Lost is clearly a smart concept, though again, I haven’t seen it (sorry, I missed the first season and never caught up). But other shows have tried to keep mysteries throughout a series and they’ve fallen flat with few viewers: Hidden Palms and Reunion are just two.

Other shows have brought about the smart in the viewers; Numb3rs is  a huge example, where the show is actually bringing about mathematical ideas into a show that would otherwise be just a basic crime show.

But overall, there seems to be a lack of smart. When The West Wing, ER, and Gilmore Girls started, there were random quips and stronger storylines. However, people followed them. I know it seems odd that I included Gilmore Girls in there, but honestly, the fast-talking pop-culture basis really carried a smart feel–a feel that really declined in later seasons.

So what’s bringing this about? I’m afraid to say it (though I already have), but time and money. But whose?

Without viewers, shows can’t last. So if viewers won’t give a show like Studio 60 a chance because they don’t want to put that much attention to an hour-long program, then what can the networks really do? But then again, Pushing Daisies did have viewers. So what happened there?

Clearly, some of the fault lies in the networks. How long is long enough to decide? Four episodes (Drive)? Nine episodes (Reunion)? Fourteen (Firefly)? Twenty-five (Tru Calling)?

[Ok, I wasn’t trying to only pick FOX shows there, but hey, look what happened. You get a prize if you can figure out what else all of those shows have in common.]

And you have to admit, the networks do have more problems with money. Unlike HBO, they don’t have a subscription basis, which means they can’t put all their money into one show. Cable series have had this advantage. They have much tighter budgets, and if something doesn’t make money AND QUICK, it can’t be on TV.

So true, they are at a disadvantage, but why do they have to go to reality TV before putting together something quality? Raising the Bar could have easily been shown on any network other than TNT, but it wasn’t. Possibly The Closer, too. Instead, we have too many competition shows and game shows–and Jay Leno’s getting his own nightly talk show at 10:00 pm!

What’s disappointing is that now I watch TV, and I’m bored. I want the smart back. I’d like to know that our basic networks aren’t free due to bad programming.

But anyway, what do you think? Viewers’ faults for not watching? Networks for not giving shows a chance? Or cable for being bullies? All opinions welcome.

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One thought on “Are the networks devoid of smart?

  1. I’m not sure what the root cause of this is. I think part of it is the fragmentation of the market. On cable, a show like Mad Men can have only 2 million viewers and still be a pretty big success. Networks don’t have that kind of leeway; they need much bigger numbers, and therefore they’re less likely to take a risk with something that is thought-provoking, slow to develop, and so on. And perhaps the networks are deluding themselves a bit as well; they certainly can’t continue to expect shows to rate like they did twenty years ago. A viewers attention is too fragmented. Back in the 80s, most viewers had no more than 13 channels to think about; now we have hundreds, plus the internet and video games. So, I think, the major reason is simply too many options for the networks to play anything super risky. But secondly, the fault falls on viewers for not watching because they don’t want to be challenged.

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