A New Stage in the Evolution of Original Cable Programming?

September 1, 2010
By | 7 Comments

In recent years, a crop of basic and premium cable series has had the distinction of pushing boundaries and offering content somehow differentiated from their more staid broadcast brethren. The industrial logic seemed to be that the niche audiences afforded by cable’s dual revenue streams allowed more narrowcast, edgy programs. This summer’s crop of original cable series leaves me wondering if we’ve entered a new era, as I increasingly find less innovation and distinction among many of cable’s originals.

Let me start by focusing only on basic cable—premium cable is a different beast, and I’m not sure the argument holds there, certainly if Boardwalk Empire is any indication. So far this summer I’ve watched a handful of episodes of The Glades, Rizzoli and Isles, Covert Affairs, and Memphis Beat, and none have left me curious for more. I’ve got the formula, I can probably tell you what is going to happen for the next 12 episodes, if they all make it that long. None, except for a bit of play with characters in Memphis Beat, feature much I could note as exceptional. Admittedly, my viewing has fallen off from other cable originals such as Psych and Leverage that I once watched regularly; here too, the episodic-caper-of-the-week leaves me with little return on my investment of weekly viewing.

There isn’t a Shield, Battlestar, or Mad Men among these new shows. In the past, other cable originals seemed at least somewhat unconventional—Monk had his neuroses, Psych its generationally-specific banter and references, and Burn Notice—okay, I can’t completely explain my continued interest in Burn Notice, except for its function as climate porn during the Michigan winter. Anyway, cable originals have tended to have some quality or characteristic that made them seem unlikely to succeed on a generally-branded broadcast network. In contrast, Rizzoli and Isles seems a minor twist on Crossing Jordan (which debuted nearly a decade ago) and Covert Affairs is an Alias knock-off (also debuted in 2001) which only serves to remind of the writing and acting skill of the “original.”

Notably, the summer’s new offerings haven’t all been unexceptional. Many of the cable shows that most aspire to be different, exceptional, or both are on FX, and FX’s new summer offering Louie remained on brand (Terriers debuts September 8). AMC’s Breaking Bad went to amazing places this summer and Rubicon seems to be a tremendous new conspiracy thriller. And with the return of Mad Men, this summer’s cable offerings have not all disappointed. Perhaps what I thought was an “original cable” distinction, is really just a matter of the brand of FX and AMC.

Instead of “cable” and “broadcast” being in anyway meaningful descriptors of the artistry or accomplishment of series, maybe we are entering an era in which both broadcast and cable channels feature schedules divided between “branding programs” and “schedule-fillers.” In facing distinctive algorithms of budgets, subscription fees, audiences, advertising dollars, and aspiration, both types of television outlets tend to this calculation in specific ways. What seems odd about this move toward filling out a schedule by cable channels, is that they’ve never needed to—the year-round originals on one night a week seemed a viable strategy (at least from the arm chair). Do we really need more marginal programming—it seems so contrary to the emerging technological and distribution environment. Perhaps the schedule expansion that has led to a focus on quantity over distinction is a strategy to argue parity and draw more dollars from advertisers’ broadcast budgets? I think I recall a TNT executive noting the cable channel featured more hours of new original programming this winter than NBC—which suggests it is on decision-makers’ minds. I have some other theories—more posts to come.


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7 Responses to “ A New Stage in the Evolution of Original Cable Programming? ”

  1. Jason Mittell on September 1, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    I think you hit on it by distinguishing “original cable” from the innovative brand of FX & AMC (and I’d add Cartoon Network and sometimes Comedy Central to that roster). FX & AMC seem to be going for a non-premium premium aesthetic, and I’d say Louie is as innovative as anything on TV at the moment. Have USA, TNT, TBS, etc. ever been framed as innovators? It seems like each offers a standard template for their styles, and their cable distinction is more tied to not trying to “do it all” like on networks.

    The more interesting question to me is how networks have tried to adopt the cable formulas, as with “The Good Guys.” I haven’t tracked its performance, but it seems like such a self-consciously cable-style show to be on a network. The hard thing today is measuring what counts as a “success” for these mid-level shows, as low production budgets and international distribution can allow such shows to thrive with middling ratings

    • Amanda Lotz on September 1, 2010 at 2:47 PM

      I think there has been a sense that in the past even USA, TNT, etc were doing something that “couldn’t” be done on broadcast, although always much less boundary pushing.

      The Good Guys is an interesting case and sort of poses the corollary of broadcast doing “cable” shows. I think there is a lot to sort out such as balance between procedural/episodic and serial story, character types, and tone, which still “generally” distinguish shows common in one place or another. I think I’m mainly interested in how whatever nascent theories we have about how industrial context affects continues to hold up or falter.

      The success question is also fascinating, especially given the handful of stories I’ve seen this summer reminding us how few people are really watching Mad Men and how much money it losing. AMC and TNT are clearly using very different programming strategies and defining success in really different ways. There could be lessons here to for broadcast. Thanks for reading.

      • Jason Mittell on September 1, 2010 at 6:36 PM

        Amanda – did you see this article on the economics of Mad Men? It seems like the show isn’t losing money as much as serving as part of a larger strategy toward revenue. Obviously that’s a generous way of saying it’s not making money like The Closer, but still, there’s a range of revenue streams to be tapped into.

        • Amanda Lotz on September 2, 2010 at 7:17 AM

          Exactly what I mean by different strategies. I think this is further evidence for norms of multiple economic models for both broadcast and cable in the post-network/digital convergence era. Some will rely on international, some might be cheap enough to not need a secondary market, some can get by on a secondary domestic market, etc. I’m curious to see the consequences this has for the range of content produced and whether any clear relationships become established. Given all the “boundary” pushing of cable, I’ve been a bit surprised by the fact that opportunities for non-white and/or gay characters has remained so limited. I love my FX shows, but man are they white and straight.

  2. Erin Copple Smith on September 10, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Just getting to this now, Amanda, but I wanted to tease out this distinction between “branding programs” and “schedule fillers.” I certainly agree with the general distinction–the difference between programming which helps you define your channel brand and stuff that just allows you to keep up in the “keep it fresh” original programming model of cable.

    But I do think that many of the shows you’ve discussed here, while perhaps not narratively distinctive or particularly interesting, are actually “branding programs,” not “schedule fillers.” Take, for example, Covert Affairs, which although perhaps not particularly innovative does help support the USA branding of “characters welcome” and, in fact, the channel format of mostly-episodic-caper-of-the-week narratives. Likewise, Rizzoli & Isles fits in with TNT’s “drama knowledge,” as it were.

    It’s an interesting idea, though, and one that’s definitely worth consideration and continued discussion!

    • Amanda Lotz on September 10, 2010 at 12:41 PM

      Hmm…on one level your comment points out the generalness of the USA and TNT brands. Indeed, demarcating TNT as “drama” and TBS as “comedy” was enough distinction in 2004, I’m not so sure today. And “characters welcome” is only meaningful if the characters really are different from other outlets.
      I didn’t find any of the “characters welcome” characteristics in Covert Affairs–if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought it better fit the brand of the channel with Leverage (TNT). For that matter, it almost seems Rizzoli & Isles is the “characters welcome” show–as the only thing that distinguishes it from the 5,000 previous cop episodics is its efforts make Rizzoli the “quirky” beauty uncomfortable being feminine (although, Homicide played with this in far more interesting ways with Michael Michele’s character), and Isles her opposite. Either show could be on Lifetime for that matter (if Lifetime ever really put some money into its originals).
      What I find interesting is that after 5-10 years of hearing broadcast programmers complain about how difficult their task is (developing a brand for a big tent audience) in an environment when cable can target niche audiences, we are seeing shows with a broadcast level of general branding.

      • Erin Copple Smith on September 11, 2010 at 3:50 PM

        Interesting points! I admit to never having watched Covert Affairs (though Andrew has, and likes it) or Rizzoli & Isles, so I admit my comment was a bit presumptuous.

        I absolutely agree that the “brands” cable channels seem to be working with are so general as to be meaningless. Nonetheless, it certainly seemed as though the promotions for these shows fit in with the other series on the channels. But maybe I’m comparing promotions to promotions? These channels definitely do a nice job of syncing up their promos–sometimes, if I can’t remember what channel a show is on, I picture their promos and it helps me remember! Clever, clever, TNT/USA/etc. (Maybe there’s a blog post in there, actually…)

        In any case–thanks for the excellent post and rebuttal. Great food for thought!