Golden Age for TV? Yes, on Cable
Maybe it’s because I’m from Minneapolis, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Saturday nights on CBS that I spent with Mary Tyler Moore during her show’s heyday in the ’70s. Sure, Saturday night on the Tiffany network also had “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” but who else could take a nothing day, a Saturday for instance, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
How about Kimbo Slice, a massive guy with a Unabomber beard and bare hands capable of performing autopsies?
A week ago, Mr. Slice — and I mean absolutely no disrespect, in case his range of interests includes this newspaper — stepped into the ring on “CBS EliteXC Saturday Night Fights,” the first in a series of mixed martial arts cage matches on the network, and solved a few mysteries.
1) Who would watch this stuff on network television? A lot of folks, 4.9 million of them in fact, including the precious young males advertisers love.
2) Is Saturday night, as Frank Sinatra suggested, the loneliest night of the week? Not when Mr. Slice has drawn a bead on you. Son, if that’s the case, you have plenty of company.
3) Most compellingly, what could possibly be inside the cauliflower ear of Mr. Slice’s opponent, a tomato can named James Thompson? As all of us found out by the end of the fight, some really yucky stuff.
In CBS’s Saturday night pantheon, the girl who could turn the world on with her smile has been replaced by a man whose missing teeth may be his most compelling feature.
Confronted by an audience that is either on the Web or a milk carton, and a writers’ strike that left the scripted cupboard a little bare, networks are opting in on all manner of contests and challenges, including human cockfighting.
Randomly flip on a network broadcast and people are dancing, fighting, singing and conniving their way to the top. The sitcom laugh track is petering out, as are the kinds of tent-pole dramas and news coverage that gave networks their brand identity.
However, for anybody with cable — and that includes most of us — television is in something of a golden age. Cable networks other than the fancy subscription services like HBO and Showtime used to be the realm of stupid human tricks and commercials for six-minute abs, but networks have shot by them in the race to the bottom.
Channels like TNT, AMC, FX and others came up with their own versions of “Trading Places” and carved out niches, sometimes huge ones, by letting viewers know that narrative, quality and drama have not gone off the grid. Those characteristics have just switched coordinates. Sure, “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” still rule the water cooler, but shows like “Mad Men,” “The Closer” and “Saving Grace” are bubbling up as well.
Need more evidence of cable’s sneaky plan to produce quality programming to get quality audiences? NBC’s big push for next season is expanding “The Biggest Loser” to two full hours. Those of us who are looking forward to the third season of “Friday Night Lights,” a riveting drama about the American family through a pigskin prism, will have to wait because the network decided to share the property with DirectTV by splitting production costs and letting satellite viewers get first dibs.
If networks are no longer in the business of coming up with must-see serials that mature over time — we all know that “M*A*S*H,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” you-name-it took a long time to turn into hits — what business are they in?
“They are on an endless search for the next big thing,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, which includes TNT and TBS. “There is very little consistency in what they are doing, and people don’t know what to expect when they turn on the broadcast networks. They are still in the business of appointment television, but there are fewer and fewer appointments. There’s a great big opportunity for cable networks.”
The writers’ strike may have done some damage to the network mode, as well. Not only did viewers tune out in droves — all three networks were down double digits — but competitors also grabbed a tasty share of that pie, with ad-supported cable audiences up 9 percent. Over the course of the strike, cable grew to a 48 percent share, up four points, all of it coming from the hide of the networks.
And it’s not just broadcast entertainment that is hurting. Part of the reason that networks seem to be losing their exalted status is that news programming, typically great for the image and not so much for the ratings, has been given over to the cable news stations. When issues of civic moment are nigh, consumers have been trained to tune in to Wolf or Chris, not Brian or Katie.
Last Tuesday night was a historic one, given that a black candidate became the presumptive presidential nominee of a major party. ABC made the lonely decision to cut away from regular programming to give its viewers a seat on history. NBC covered it with short news breaks while telling its viewers to head over to MSNBC for news. And CBS broadcast the speech only to pre-prime-time West Coast audiences.
For its trouble, ABC was beaten in the ratings by a cable station, CNN. According to my colleague Brian Stelter, it was only the second time in history that a cable news network attracted more viewers than a broadcaster during a major news event. (Fox News lodged the first during the Republican convention in 2004.)
There are other signs that the signal between cable and networks is being scrambled. Tonight at 8 p.m., CBS will broadcast an episode of “The Bill Engvall Show,” a TBS sitcom. In exchange for getting a shot on network air to promote the second season of the show, which begins on Thursday on the cable network, TBS has agreed to give CBS space this coming fall to promote its new lineup.
The move suggests that cable commercial time, once thought of as the province of cheap kitchen gadgets and cut-rate loan sharks, has gained luster. And it will give additional momentum to a “The Bill Engvall Show,” a goofy family program of the kind in which networks used to excel. Last year, the show gathered 4.1 million viewers.
Turner is not only sporting networklike numbers, but it is also beginning to act like a network. Last month, the cable network went toe to toe with the networks at the upfronts, giving a presentation during the same week. Mr. Koonin did everything he could to etch a shift in paradigm, pointing out with a pop quiz from the stage that while TNT has shows with gilded performers like the Oscar winner Holly Hunter and the Emmy winner Kyra Sedgwick, the networks were pushing shows about talking cars and guys in leotards.
ABC finished the upfronts with a flourish of its own, hyping “Wipeout,” a contest that brings the aesthetic of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” — gee, that looked like it really hurt — to a set that involves robotic boxing gloves and giant rubber balls. ABC picked YouTube’s pocket to bring a little mayhem to the small screen with better resolution by producing “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.” Now if it could just get a series out of that video where a bear gets shot out of tree with a tranquilizer gun, hits a trampoline and lands on a 4-year-old, my life would be complete.
Sensing an opportunity, ad-supported cable networks will jump in front of the fall network television station lineup with new episodes of “The Closer,” starring Ms. Sedgwick, and “Saving Grace,” starring Ms. Hunter, in July, while USA has already introduced its heavily promoted show about the witness protection program, “In Plain Sight,” and Lifetime’s spicy “Army Wives” came back for a second season last night.
In the meantime, network viewers will have to settle for Mr. Slice. Saturday night’s all right for fighting, but then, so is just about every night on the network schedule.