September 24, 2013
Emmys tell bleak tale of broadcast TV
So the Emmys were on Sunday, and with it no shortage of Neiling, Breaking and flopped attempts at Modernizing. Not least of which was characterized by the slap-happy host jabbing “our younger audience” by clarifying that television is “the thing you watch on your phones.” Cute? Sure. Out of touch? Ugh.
And so it began. The 65th Primetime Emmy awards, a Hollywood tradition long thought of as little more than a red-carpeted popularity contest, had garnered speculations and conversations in the weeks prior that were markedly different than the usual buffet of “will-she/won’t-he” gossip. Many cautiously hoped to witness the fruits of an Academy ready and willing to validate a rapidly changing industry, the appropriately titled golden age of television. An eagerness to welcome a landscape already rich with content and even richer with possibility.
The finished product indicated a pretty acceptable purity level. Perhaps not by Walter White standards, but by no means a bunk batch. (Save for the drawn-out In Memoriam segment and grossly blatant Cory Monteith monetizing.)
Here’s what we saw. For the second year in a row, broadcast networks were kept out of Outstanding Drama consideration. And while we saw a few contenders for lead and supporting roles in the drama categories, Kerry Washington for Scandal (ABC), Christine Baranski for The Good Wife (CBS) and Jim Carter for Downton Abbey (PBS), to name a few, none went home with a win. It was AMC’s Breaking Bad that took the Emmy for Outstanding Drama, the ratings for which continue to climb week by week. Last Sunday’s episode saw a whopping 6.6 million viewers, up from 6.4 million the week before. My girl Anna Gunn also got her just desserts with a statue for her role as Skyler Wife to Lord Bad. As well she should have; the positive reinforcement was long overdue.
Cable network kingpin HBO stole the show with 27 wins on the night, while leading the pack for the broadcast networks was CBS with 16. The numbers, significant though not surprising, are indicative of the shift away from broadcast network models and a transformed television landscape. Adding to the shakeup this year was a historical win for Netflix, ruthless leader of the online streaming movement, whose political victory garden House of Cards secured one of its three primetime nominations in the form of David Fincher for best director in a drama series.
Netflix at the Emmys? The force behind that conspicuous red envelope gracing my mailbox? The same Netflix whose logo this blog’s banner is fashioned after? That Netflix?
That Netflix. And here’s what it means. With esteemed personalities like Kevin Spacey backing the unconventional model from both sides of the camera, and promises from higher-uppers to create a minimum of 10 original programs in 2014, the cloud is the limit. The Big Four team of ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX has long played by an ol’ boy business strategy where higher ratings equal higher profit via advertisers. But with the introduction of DVRs and online video streaming, coupled with the impact of an ever-elusive social media jungle, the days of X + Y = $ are slipping further and further away. Pepper in the indisputable threat of alternative viewing platforms, only the beginnings of which are being demonstrated by Lady-in-Red Netflix, and you have an inevitable system overhaul on the broadcast horizon.
Another, sexier variable at play is cable content vs. broadcast content. Cable and online content is, well, sexier. And more varied. Characters housed in premium cable channels are more complex – more shaded, more jaded, more human. The way we watch TV is changing, but more importantly so is the way we think about and even socialize with TV. The broadcast network hold on the comedy sphere remains, as seen by ABC’s Modern Family winning Outstanding Comedy Series the fourth year in a row. But even with recent success stories like Modern Family and Big Bang Theory, no one is rushing to the online water coolers for a rousing debate about Jim Parsons’ psychological underpinnings. The characters don’t seep into our everyday musings because they’re not very interesting and even less relatable. And with shows like Orange is the New Black and Louie blurring the lines between what constitutes a drama or a comedy in the first place, it’s clear television real estate is not just building up, it’s expanding out.
There is room in the small screen club for these shows. People watch them because they enjoy them and that’s fine. (FOX’s new comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is hilarious. Tune in tonight at 7:30 PT!) But they lack the interactive component characteristic of most cable shows that many find so satisfying – the chewiness of the episode after the credits have rolled. The ability to mentally chew and be chewed week after week by Breaking Bad and Mad Men is more than just the luxury of writers maintaining creative power. It keeps us talking, it keeps them employed. One-dimensional entertainment can be blissful, but broadcast networks’ golden egg of formulaic churn-outs won’t stand a chance against the golden age of television.
This regime change has not gone unnoticed by the steadily rusting big broadcast execs, though it seems the scrambled efforts to stay relevant in the drama world are for the worse. If you’ve scanned the bill for fall’s new dramas, don’t scan the bill for fall’s new dramas. Grantland staff writer Andy Greenwald sums it up like this:
“…the new network dramas of 2013 are a particularly insipid lot, a mediocre mishmash of throwback pablum and attention-seeking crazy. The dominant programming strategy seems to be based on that time-honored tradition of giving up on being one thing and doubling down on being all of the things.”
When you whittle it down, the 65th Primetime Emmys reflected a familiar sermon in a different dialect. The serenity to accept the cable networks it cannot change, the courage to change the broadcast networks it can, and the wisdom to stream the difference.