What Happened to Network Television?

By Daniel Fox | @DanielFox85

Eleven.  That is the number of total Emmy nominations garnered by the major television networks (ABC/NBC/FOX/CBS) within the major categories (Outstanding Drama/Comedy Series, as well as all acting categories drama/comedy) for 2016.  Out of those eleven nominations only two are in dramatic categories, with both nominees in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series field (Viola Davis for How To Get Away With Murder and Taraji P. Henson for Empire).  The remaining nine are in comedic categories with almost all the nominations being dominated by two shows in Modern Family and black-ish.  Just for some perspective at how legitimately shocking that number eleven is today;  in 2006, a mere decade ago, the number of nominations for major networks in those same categories was thirty-five.  That’s almost a 70% decrease in nominations in just ten years!  That year also happens to be the last time a major network’s television drama (FOX’s 24) won an Emmy for Outstanding Series.   If the major network television shows were a stock, you would be trying to sell like crazy.  However, the big four networks are still the most watched channels, with the highest viewership and ratings (as CBS is bound to tell you during every commercial break).  In fact, out of the fifty highest rated shows of the 2015-16 TV season, all but nine of those shows could be found on the major networks (only one of those top fifty shows is on a premium cable network, I’ll let you guess which show, but here’s a hint… it has dragons).  Why is this the case?  Have we as a society just completely sacrificed quality programming for mindless entertainment?  Maybe this is just frustrating me on a personal level because in Honduras my only access to TV spoken in the English language is via those four major networks (I also get HGTV, so a special shout out to Fixer Upper as you guys save my Tuesday nights).  If I want to watch the latest episode of Mr. Robot, then I have to scour the internet until I find an episode to download (yea I said download, don’t judge, you know you are still using your parent’s Netflix account).  With my internet capability that only takes about two hours.  Anyways, I just want to know why this happened.  Why I’m stuck with ShondaLand instead of LOST?  Why NBC thinks an entire night of Chicago-themed shows is a good idea instead of creating the next The West Wing?  So let’s examine a couple theories together.

Photo Credit: obsev.com

Photo Credit: obsev.com

Theory #1- “Artistic Freedom”

This is probably the most popular theory out there, but it’s also the one I probably agree with the least.  The theory basically is that television showrunners prefer to go to a premium cable network like HBO or basic cable programming like FX or AMC, because those networks give them the best avenue to tell the story they want to tell, and more importantly how they want to tell it.  If an auteur feels like the best way to tell their story is by incorporating language, violence, or sexual situations, then those networks are most likely to give them the freedom to do so.  Also, those same networks are mostly recognized as being very hands-off in the creative process.  For example, HBO basically told Nic Pizzolatto to create season two of True Detective however he saw fit; from the scripts, to directors, to casting, all of it was placed in Pizzolatto’s hands without outside interference.  The perception of mainstream networks is that any show is constantly under the watchful eyes of network executives, often with a network executive being exclusively assigned to a series to serve as the overseer during the creative process.  If they feel like something is not going to work, or doesn’t align with what the network wants, they can immediately tattle on the showrunner to the higher-ups.  Personally, I can understand the desire for showrunners not to have outside interference on their projects, but in reality “carte blanche” is rarely handed out in the entertainment industry.  Even when it is, it often turns back disastrous or at least disappointing results.  Artistic freedom has to be earned, I’m fairly certain that most HBO executives were examining Game of Thrones much more closely five years ago than they are for the final two seasons.  I also don’t buy the part of the theory that states that shows need the elements of violence, language, or sexuality/nudity to properly tell their story.  Can those elements help advance a certain plot point?  Yes, but it feels like way too many times those elements are used simply because they can be used.  Like did we really need to see someone naked every twenty minutes in True Blood?  Of course not.  Does The Wire need to drop consistent F-bombs to really communicate the Baltimore Police and drug/gang cultures?  I’ve heard people argue that it makes the shows more realistic, as you would expect to hear that kind of language in real life.  I understand that, but I personally don’t agree that the quality of the show would suffer with the language being slightly dialed back to fit the standards of a network television audience.  I really think Veep would be the most successful comedy on network television if they could cut back on the language.  But again, it’s all about what the showrunners feel like they need in their shows to tell the best version of the story they want to tell.  As long as that’s the case, they will continue to run to the avenues where they can find that freedom.  It’s really only natural.

Theory #2- “Advertising vs. Subscriptions”

This theory is centered on how these networks make the thing that really matter most to them, and that’s not ratings, Emmy awards, or critical acclaim.  It’s money.  Just as a refresher, online streaming services and premium cable channels pay for their programming through subscriptions, while networks (and by extension the basic cable channels that are under their umbrella) pay for their programming through advertising.  The goal of any business is to offer a product that a consumer wants/needs at the most efficient price possible.  So the root of the problem of network television quality is completely evident solely based on who is providing the revenue.  Subscriber networks are making shows for subscribers, they are making shows that they believe people are going to be willing to pay for.  It’s the same principle behind movies, studios want to make a film that they believe is going to bring in the highest profit possible.  Therefore, the HBO’s of the world can focus more on the quality of the show in terms of what they believe anyone is going to be willing to pay money to watch every month.  On the other hand, networks are forced to create a TV schedule that they believe is going to satisfy their primary customers, and no that’s not us sitting at home, it’s the advertisers.  It’s not a stretch to say that big business runs big networks, and that directly influences what we see on our primary channels every night.  Networks want eyeballs, as many eyeballs as possible.  The higher the ratings, the higher prices they can set for their thirty second commercials.  Simple supply and demand, if the demand for that channel/show is very high, that results in a higher price for commercials.  It’s why the Super Bowl is not only the event with the highest commercial prices, it’s also the event that networks pay the most for the right to televise, because they know the incoming advertising revenue is worth the expense.  This is why the big four networks are dominated by shows they know are going to draw the most viewers; sports, reality programs, and serialized/formulaic dramas and comedies.  So to quickly summarize, the President of NBC doesn’t really care about Emmy nominations or the quality of his shows as he’s currently too busy swimming in his Scrooge McDuck styled bank vault full of all the advertising revenue of the 2016 Rio Olympics.


So what do you really think is the cause of the decline of network television programming?  In reality, it really is probably the cause of the two paragraphs above… along with a combination of a million other things.  Maybe TV simply just got really big, as we’ve gone from an era where my mother could only watch a few channels in her home, to where I got to grow up with hundreds of different options.  Who knows?  But I would really like to see networks forgo the almighty dollar and start focusing on the quality of the shows they are putting out there, as opposed to how much money they can gain.  It was frustrating for me to watch a show like Parenthood or Hannibal that were great pieces of art, but struggled to survive on network TV because they couldn’t pull in reality show ratings.  It’s why NBC will never move Mr. Robot from the USA Network (which is owned by NBC Universal) to NBC, even though they easily could make that change overnight.  Because there can be only one ruler of network television, and as long as money talks, it’s going to have the last word.