Dramas illustrate rapid change in TV

PASADENA, CA - Creators of two of the most indelible dramas on network television last decade, "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," are making programs for cable networks now, and they speak with the zeal of the happily converted.

"Now that we're all here together, we can definitively agree that cable is far superior to network," said Damon Lindelof, who worked on ABC's "Lost" and is making a similarly complex new program for HBO, "The Leftovers."

The changing balance of power -- and how proud broadcasters are fighting back -- is the subtext to meetings with television industry leaders and reporters in Pasadena this month. Nowhere is that more clear than in the field of dramas.

Once often content to air reruns, cable networks are busy establishing themselves as creators. There are 180 scripted original series on cable this year, up from 22 in 2002, said John Landgraf, FX network chief. Services like Netflix are jumping in, too.

More important than numbers is the perception that cable is the place to turn for quality. It started with "The Sopranos," and continues with awards and critical attention showered on the likes of "Mad Men," "Homeland" and "Breaking Bad." The idea is reinforced when many of television's key creative minds argue that cable is the place to be.

Marc Cherry, creator of "Desperate Housewives," said that making the soap "Devious Maids" for Lifetime "has been just a joyous creative experience." To be fair, Cherry took "Devious Maids" to ABC first and was rejected. Now he revels in the creative freedom, saying he gets less second-guessing.

Cherry said he has more time to work on the writing, and can include more intricate details. After acknowledging now that he went into the critically drubbed second season of "Desperate Housewives" with no plan, he learned he needs to have an idea of what will happen in a second season before beginning the first.

Cable offers a measure of security that broadcasters, with more intense commercial pressures, can't match. A cable series is rarely canceled in the middle of a season.

The grind of a typical broadcast schedule, requiring some 22 episodes a year, also wears on creators -- particularly now that they see an alternative. Most cable "seasons" are half that, or less. That improves quality, Lindelof said.

"You're not needing to fill weeks of story that are non-essential," he said. "So, hopefully, every episode of `The Leftovers' will feel like it needs to exist versus it's just this very kind of fibrous bridge that exists between two essential episodes which all of us as TV fans, you know, really find incredibly frustrating to watch."

Before one conference last week, producers of several CBS dramas admitted grumbling backstage about their workload.

"That's an insatiable appetite," said Jonathan Nolan, "Person of Interest" executive producer, "which is a great thing that the audience wants more of what you're making, but it is very difficult. I feel like that number is probably calibrated ... not to the length of the season or production schedules, but to the exact point at which a showrunner (producer) will have a nervous breakdown."

What Nolan finds exciting about being on CBS is the immediacy, writing a scene and seeing it on the air a few weeks later.

It's not like broadcasters are bereft. CBS' "The Good Wife," NBC's "The Blacklist" and ABC's "Scandal" are popular and creatively strong. Broadcasters still have a reach that cable networks can't match. Television's most popular show, "NCIS" on CBS, has roughly 20 million viewers for each new episode, twice as much as AMC's buzz worthy "The Walking Dead."

"It's a privilege to reach an audience the size that we're able to reach in broadcast," said "NCIS" executive producer Gary Glasberg. "The fact that we're in our 11th season and we have the viewership that we do, 18 million Facebook fans, that's crazy. And, you know, that's because I'm on broadcast."

Networks are now looking for more limited-run series. Over the past year, CBS, NBC and Fox have each assigned executives to look specifically for these types of projects. Veteran producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, successful with "The Bible" miniseries on History last year, signed with CBS to adapt "The Dovekeepers" to television for a miniseries.

Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment president, said he's doing away with broadcast's traditional pilot season, where networks make test episodes of dozens of prospective series and choose among them during a furious couple of weeks in the spring. That's a nod to cable: Reilly wants to take more time developing series to work out kinks and have a better idea of how it will work.

Not everyone fully agrees with him, but change is in the air.

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