How Cable’s Emmy Wins Signal The Future Of Television Programming
- Ver Original
- Setembro 23º, 2013
Original cable programming once again demonstrated its increasing dominance of television at tonight’s Emmy Awards. These cable and non-broadcast shows — especially the dramas — aren’t necessarily the highest-rated shows on TV, but they are the most important ones, because they point the way toward the future of television. (Dina Gachman has the full list of winners for you!)I should note up-front, we can include Netflix Netflix among the broad grouping of “non-broadcast” programming, since the streaming-and-DVD service is producing its own content that quickly became eligible for Emmy nominations and will inevitably go into syndication on television. Netflix had three original series nominated this year, and the service plans to increase its original programming in the future, meaning the distinctions between television and online content are fast becoming blurred and — eventually — extinct.
Cable and non-broadcast shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and The Newsroom, for example, secured wins for most all of the prime-time drama categories. Among made-for-television movies and miniseries, six of seven categories were also won by cable programs, the one exception being a BBC America miniseries. Even comedy categories split between traditional networks and cable shows, as broadcast television saw one of its more secure genres following the same trend favoring cable programming.
Broadcast network programming won only seven out of 26 key acting, directing, and overall series non-technical categories, with four of those seven coming in comedy categories and the other three coming from one comedic variety program and two reality-type programs. Notice, too, that most of broadcast television’s wins were for half-hour shows, not hour-long programming, while cable ruled the hour-plus length programming categories, especially for dramatic fare. In some of the technical categories, broadcast networks enjoyed a few more wins to add to their tally, most of those from variety-type or otherwise non-fiction and reality types of programming. So when it comes to original fiction, broadcast programming was mostly shut out.
Cable’s presence at the Emmys is relatively new, since the awards show excluded cable programs from consideration until 25 years ago. It took another 11 years for cable to get a real foot in the door to begin its slow rise as master of dramatic programming, until the last several years have finally seen cable become the gold standard of excellence in original dramatic series and made-for-television films.
However, this year’s level of dominance — particularly of dramatic programming — speaks to certain facts that are much talked about in Hollywood these days, but might be less obvious to the average viewer. First, that cable television has become a go-to arena for top quality talent in most every regard (writing, directing, acting, and so on). Second, that broadcast networks are increasingly attempting to mirror cable programming’s approach and image. Let’s look at why these things are true…
Cable can offer a less limited creative environment for writers, directors, and producers. To compete with broadcast networks, cable realized the need to offer original programming that went beyond the scope of regular network television, and this required attracting talent that wasn’t being drawn to the broadcast networks yet. Film writers, movie stars, and top directors in cinema were being courted and offered lots of creative freedom — more than they get in the movie industry. Just as broadcast networks were for the most part relying too heavily on reality programming that was cheap to produce and all tended to seem the same, cable was taking risks and offering audiences something unique, something edgy, something appealing to viewers who don’t otherwise watch much TV in the first place. They were targeting audiences for whom there wasn’t much being offered on television, and they offered this audience some of the highest-quality content being made in either television or cinema. And this approach worked, on every level.
When watching the most popular and most critically acclaimed cable dramas, it’s often like a cinematic experience in terms of the sheer quality of the content. Additionally, while broadcast networks’ strength lies in serial storytelling that depends on characters who remain virtually unchanged week after week, the trend in cable programming is that characters experience significant transformations over time, akin to cinematic storytelling. The most clear and extreme example of this is, of course, Walter White from Breaking Bad — he began as a sympathetic good-guy protagonist, turned into a sort of anti-hero, and eventually evolved into a true villain protagonist. Each week of these shows is like a mini-movie experience for audiences, and that’s one reason these are the programs capable of drawing a larger young-adult audience. These programs also have a more complicated worldview, reflecting the fact these shows are increasingly produced for a global audience. Characters are rarely absolutely good or bad, and instead existing in a wide gray area in between — more often than not on the darker side of gray, in fact.
This dominant position of cable series might seem odd to some readers, in light of the fact that of the most-watched television programs of the 2012-2013 season, only two of the top-20 shows were cable programs (one of those being a live sports program). What’s important to remember here, though, is that it’s not just a question of how much viewership a show has, but who is watching. If the viewership is the lucrative young-adult demographic, then there’s a lot more money to be made from advertisers trying to reach that demographic. And the popular cable programs mentioned above have a notably high portion of young-adult viewers. If your show has a large audience that nobody wants to market to, then the viewership numbers won’t help much, in other words. Cable stations, meanwhile, tend to rely more on subscribers and carrier deals rather than pure advertising revenue, and cable programs usually cost less to produce as well.
Consider, too, that while broadcast networks are limited in the content they can display due to federal regulations, cable is free to air prime-time content of the R-rated variety or at least push those boundaries in ways broadcast television simply cannot match. This means more creative freedom, plus an ability to supply more so-called “dark and gritty” content that some even younger viewers might be unable to see in theaters but which these viewers can easily experience at home (and on streaming, as with Netflix). Yes, there are possible barriers parents can put in place to prevent younger audiences from seeing the R-rated-equivalent programming on cable, but realistically those young viewers don’t have much trouble accessing it whenever they want. So this is yet another benefit of cable programming, and the broadcast networks keep trying to push the boundaries and convince the government to relax standards so they can “compete” with cable — a request that sounds strange in light of broadcast’s overwhelming dominance of pure viewership numbers, but which makes more sense when you take into account who is watching and the arrangements regarding advertising revenue and production costs.
These are the reasons broadcast television is attempting to mirror cable’s success by offering more creative control and less restrictions (as they push for loosening of regulations) to creative talents, by looking for more edgy programming, and by tailoring their shows to look and sound more like cable’s content. In doing so, broadcast television is hoping to attract more of the most lucrative target demographic for advertisers, to increase their fees for advertising, and to achieve more of the critical acclaim and broad audience necessary to ensure syndication. These networks must do this while trying to hold on to their current slight advantage in comedy programming by continuing their development of comedies that can attract younger viewership and push the boundaries in ways similar to the currently popular cinematic trends toward irreverent, rude/crude humor.
What’s that all got to do with the Emmys? A lot, actually. Because as everyone comes to generally recognize that cable is producing the best quality television programming, that’s usually going to translate into positive marketing opportunities that can further increase viewership. Increased viewership translates into not only immediate benefits with regard to increased advertising and/or subscription rates, but also (and more importantly, really) long-term benefits when the shows go into syndication, which is where the biggest profits are really found. But to get syndication, a show has to prove popular enough to stick around for a few seasons, and popular enough to determine higher prices for the syndicated episodes. Emmy wins raise the profile of a show, drive more viewership to the show, and thus serve these short-term and long-term considerations.
Just as cable has challenged broadcast television, we should prepare for online and streaming original content to elbow its way even further into the equation in the next few years. Netflix-type streaming original content doesn’t have much more room to offer in terms of opportunities to push boundaries any further than cable in most regards, but it does have other key advantages that it will likely focus on and lead to further influence on television programming and the Emmys.
Netflix has even more latitude to create programming specifically for more narrow targeted audiences. For example, Arrested Development doesn’t have a necessarily huge following compared to other programs, but it’s got a very loyal fanbase and it developed a cult reputation that means investing in a season or two of new episodes will pay off for Netflix by attracting that narrow target audience and then holding on to them. The latter is the key, using the specific program to hook an audience and then keeping them around with additional content that ensures they’ll remain subscribers. Putting together a block of such programming targeted at several small segments of fandom could add up to a large overall pool of new subscribers, and these programs can cross-pollinate if Netflix is smart about which blocks of programming to invest in.
This is obviously similar to how broadcast networks use an anchor program on a high-viewership night and surround that show with other programs designed to ride the coattails of the anchor series until developing their own loyal audiences. The difference is, Netflix doesn’t need each individual program to necessarily be a big hit, it just needs its overall original programming blocks to attract enough subscribers that it can successful focus on retaining enough of them to ensure it pays off in the long run. Make a couple of seasons for those two million viewers, and then keep half of them year after year even though the series is no longer in production — see how that works? And since Netflix doesn’t have to rely on cable providers to reach subscribers, it has more freedom in these regards. There’s also the fact that Netflix offers a much wider array of streaming content options for subscribers, again all entirely free of any providers getting in between Netflix and their customers.
You can bet that you’ll see a lot more Netflix content entering Emmy contention in the coming years, and likewise that you’ll see other streaming programming jumping into the fray. The wins for this sort of content will start to add up, too, and so cable stations will begin making adjustments (not just to programming, but to how they actually deliver their content to customers) that in turn will be pursued by the broadcast networks. In this way, the Emmys serve as a glimpse into the direction television programming is headed in years to come.
Congratulations to all of the Emmy winners, and to those who were nominated as well!