Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ABC, CBS, and the Future of Broadcast Television

Galavant is more "different" than "good." Is that what matters?

A few months ago, as I was writing my upfront previews, I was surprised by how sympathetic I was toward ABC’s situation – its renewals, cancelations, and schedule – and how antagonistic I was toward the same news coming from CBS.  I was genuinely excited about ABC’s future prospects while giving CBS the “Ho hum; same old, same old” treatment.  I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s not because I particularly hate CBS shows or love ABC’s programming; I watch roughly the same number of hours on each network.  It’s not because I was particularly eager for any of their new series; I wasn’t even sure what shows were going to end up on the fall schedule.  It took me a long time to figure out what made me so optimistic about ABC and so pessimistic about CBS: While both networks appear very forward-thinking in their attempts to monetize the current television market, ABC's tactics embrace diversity and quality while CBS’s methods embrace repetition and quantity.

It may seem odd to call CBS (or any broadcast network really) forward-thinking.  After all, CBS has long had the reputation of being the “old people’s network,” where viewers outside of the 18-49 demographic go to get their fixes of police procedurals and multi-cam sitcoms.  Really, though, that’s never truly been the case.  Even setting that myth aside, it’s impossible to look at CBS’s scheduling decisions and not see a network that realizes the era of thriving on advertising revenue is over.  While NBC is trying desperately to bring more live viewing to its network with programming like Sunday Night Football, The Voice, or this year’s all-live season of Undateable, CBS frankly seems like they don’t care if you watch their programs live anymore because, you see, CBS has turned into a syndication machine.  Its sole purpose is to crank out 88-100+ episodes of dramas and comedies that it can then sell off into syndication for $2-3 million per episode. 

Thanks to syndication, it has become incredibly easy for a low-rated, aging drama to be much more profitable than even a hit new series in a plum timeslot.  With shows like Hawaii Five-0 and The Good Wife drawing more than $2 million per episode in syndication, most ad revenue they receive now is pure profit.  But there’s a catch.  In order for a show to make the CBS Corporation money in syndication it has to be a CBS-produced series.  This isn’t new or uncommon.  The trend across every network has, for the last couple of decades, been moving toward the production of more and more in-house programming.  But CBS has taken it to the extreme.  This fall, the network is airing only one drama that they are not at least co-producing: the WB-created Supergirl – and even that show is taking the place of two WB comedies: 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. 

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon or even a negative one.  Other networks also produce much of their own programming.  Where it becomes frustrating with CBS is not just in how many in-house shows they are airing, but the fact that they all seem the same.  Because CBS is so focused on earning syndication money, they tailor their shows for precisely that market and that market wants procedurals.  The hard truth is that the kind of deep, complex, serialized drama that has come to define the “Golden Age of Television” is not the kind of television that gets great ratings in extended repeats.  Flip on TNT, USA, or WGN America on any given afternoon and you’re not going to find episodes of Breaking Bad, Lost, or The Shield.  You’re going to find endless airings of NCIS, Law & Order: SVU, and Castle.  These are the shows that people will watch over and over again and these are the shows that will command a $2-3 million payday for their episodes; these are the shows that CBS will continue to crank out of its factory.

ABC has looked at the exact same television climate and decided to take an approach that is almost entirely opposed to that of CBS.  Whereas CBS has focused on cranking out 22-25 episode seasons of its shows in order to make money on the back end, ABC is trying to fill every nook and cranny of its schedule with new programming: ordering (and renewing) multiple short-run series that don’t get particularly good ratings and have no chance at reaching long-run syndication. 

It’s not an entirely new strategy.  Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise have largely served as year-round programming for the last two years and there was an aborted attempt to introduce “bridge programming” in 2013, but the network ultimately decided to air Once Upon a Time in Wonderland in the fall, rather than using it to bridge the two halves of Once Upon a Time’s year in the winter. 

ABC introduced four bridge series in 2015: Agent Carter, which aired between Agents of SHIELD’s two half-seasons; Galavant, which did the same for Once Upon a Time’s; American Crime, which aired after How to Get Away with Murder’s intentionally truncated season; and Secrets and Lies, which came on after Resurrection finished its run 13-episode run.  None of these series managed even average ratings for the network, yet all were renewed, a particular surprise for Galavant and American Crime, given that neither drew ratings that would normally be considered acceptable. 

But ABC’s mission is clear.  Ratings for repeats are in the tank.  Granted, ratings overall have been falling for several years.  But while ABC’s overall numbers are down ten percent in the last two years, its ratings for repeat airings have fallen twenty percent, making original programming that much more valuable, year after year.  The strategy, then, is to replace as many repeats as possible with original programming, which is exactly what ABC has done.  In 2012-13, the network aired 161.5 hours of repeats.  That number fell to 133 hours last year and 108.5 hours this year.  While the ratings for those new original programs haven’t been great, they’ve at least been 30-50 percent better than the very poor ratings for the repeats they’ve replaced.

The advantage this has given ABC is that, while they still don’t have the scheduling depth, they have much more breadth to fill in the gaps.  They’re nibbling at the edges, essentially, striving to eke out every extra ratings point they can.  For the most part, it’s worked.  Last year, while the ratings for the other broadcast networks were falling five, fifteen, or in the case of Fox a whopping twenty-five percent, ABC was down a mere two percent.  And the craziest part is, for all of the talk in the fall about ABC’s drama boom, what with Scandal and Once Upon a Time returning way up and How to Get Away with Murder debuting to big numbers, the network was actually down about eight percent from 2014 in its new drama airings.  But those ratings were still double what they would get from repeat airings.

Bridge programming is working for ABC.  Not only is it allowing the network to inch its ratings up bit by bit, it’s also allowing them to try new things.  An eight-episode World War II spy drama with a female lead?  Sure.  A four-hour medieval musical parody that might just be a naked attempt to get Alan Menken an EGOT?  Why not?  Hell, even Secrets & Lies and American Crime – which, fundamentally, are just long-form crime dramas – managed to at least be interesting by taking the focus off of the police and placing it on the suspects and victims instead.  Like I said, none of these shows was great (and only Agent Carter was really any good), but they were different, at least, rather than hewing to the same formula again and again.

A quick look at this coming year’s schedule shows the same patterns holding.  CBS is debuting two new in-house dramas: Limitless, essentially a superhero procedural that sounds an awful lot like Intelligence, which CBS tried two years ago, and Code Black, a medical procedural.*  Now, could one of these shows turn into the next great procedural, a la House or The Good Wife?  I suppose.  But the odds are stacked against them and, even should they get renewed, they’re far more likely to end up like, well, Intelligence or The Gifted Man. 

* CBS also has Supergirl set to debut in November, but it is a) a Warner Bros. show and b) likely going to be another superhero procedural.

Compare that to ABC, which has on tap for 2015-16 The Family, a limited-series political thriller with deep mystery roots, Of Kings and Prophets, a retelling of the Biblical book of Samuel, and Wicked City, a true crime anthology series.  Again, there’s no guarantee that these will be great shows, or even necessarily good shows, but they’re different.  And by being different, there’s a heck of a lot better chance that they’ll be emotionally satisfying. 

As has been bandied about on Twitter and in the television critics’ world recently, this is the era of Peak TV.  The idea of Peak TV means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to me it means that I have far less time for indulging the repetitive, which means that I am far more interested in shows that do something different, something new.  I like a good laundry-folding show as much as the next person, but with so much television on these days, I tend more and more to be eschewing procedurals that tell the same stories every week for shows that are wont to weave new narratives.  I’m looking for shows that will engage me and, the truth is, a standard procedural is almost never going to do that. 

What has made the Golden Age of Television and whatever period we’re in now great is change.  I expect to see the mild-mannered chemistry teacher become the drug kingpin.  Or I might even expect to see the reality television producer finally realize she’s the villain of the piece.  But I can always expect change.  I like watching a show and knowing that what I see in episode one is not what I’ll see in episode twenty or forty or one-hundred.  Right now, ABC is giving me that feeling.  I watch a bridge program on the alphabet network and I don’t know what will happen next.  Be they good or bad, these shows are still capable of surprising me.  I watch a CBS procedural and I feel like I’ve seen it all before, even if I’ve never watched a second of the program.  Hawaii Five-0, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Fundamentally, these are all the same show, even as the characters and plots change.   

That’s what it comes down to.  In 2015 my choices for television are essentially unlimited, but my time is not.  If I’m going to pick up a new show, it’s because it promises to give me something new, not the same thing I’ve seen before.  CBS, for all the success it’s found and all the future profits it’s promising, has succeeded largely by delivering the same thing over and over.  ABC is promising something different.  In the age of Peak TV, that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Time to Think Bigger: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird of the 2015 Emmy Nominations

It's hard to complain about an Emmys that finally nominates Tatiana Maslany.

Look, the Emmys are never going to “get it right.”  You’re taking the opinions of thousands of voters, many of whom don’t watch much television because they’re too busy making it, throwing them into a blender and praying that something resembling sanity comes out.  There are always going to be snubs.  What was this year’s outcries about The Americans and Jane the Virgin were the cries of The Wire before them. 

The rending of garments and gnashing of teeth on Emmy morning has only gotten worse in recent years as the number of shows has proliferated.  In the 1979-80 television season there were only about eighty scripted shows aired on all of television.  This year?  240 scripted series submitted themselves in the Outstanding Drama, Comedy, and Variety Sketch Series categories.  There are three times as many scripted shows on as there were thirty years ago and yet the number of Emmy slots has only expanded from four or five to six.  This makes the competition all the more fierce and triples the likelihood that a deserving actor or show is going to get left out.

My suggestion?  Open wide the gates.  In the last several years the television academy has expanded the Outstanding Series nominations from five to six and now to seven.  The acting categories went from five to six in 2009 and occasionally have hit seven due to ties.  Hell, this year the comedy supporting actress category has eight nominees and I haven’t heard anybody complaining about it.  All I’ve heard is how nice it is to see Gaby Hoffman and Niecy Nash getting to join the other six actresses who are all category regulars at this point.

So let’s open all of the acting categories up to eight nominees.  Sure, it’s still not going to please everybody, and we’re as likely to get more repeat nominees like Jim Parsons and Jon Voight as we are to get spurned newcomers like Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.  But the Emmys are a celebration of television and I’ve never heard complaint of too many people at a great party.

That single suggestion aside, the Emmys are what they are for another year and, at least in 2015, the nominations weren’t that bad.  Sure, the academy has a few bizarre hang-ups but, overall, every category has at least a few names worth rooting for.  So let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the weird of the 2015 Emmy nominations.

Good – Nay, great!  Tatiana Maslany earns a surprising first nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama.  It would have been nicer had it come for a season that didn’t still have four episodes sitting on my DVR, but no matter how crazy Orphan Black has gotten in the last couple of seasons, Maslany has been doing amazing work, so it’s nice to see her finally get some recognition.

Bad – Jeff freakin’ Daniels.  I mean, seriously?  I watched every episode of The Newsroom and while I could appreciate it for its Sorkiny goodness, not once did I ever turn on an episode and think that Daniels was the best thing on it.  He’s mostly just a white, male bloviator lecturing the audience on all of the wrongs of the world.  Then again, maybe that’s exactly what the voters want to see.

WeirdUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt pulling in three major nominations but none for Ellie Kemper.  I mean, I like Titus Burgess and Jane Krakowski, but that show lives on the specificity and believability of its title character, so to see her left out is strange.  And it’s not like the comedy lead actress category was particularly strong to begin with.  If you’re going to give a nomination to Lily Tomlin for the far inferior Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, you should find a way to get Kemper in there as well.

Good – The overall diversity of this year’s nominees was a welcome sight, especially compared with the blinding whiteness of the Oscar nominations.  Six African-American actors and actresses locked down lead nominations while ten actors of color drew supporting nods.  It would be nice to see some of that diversity transfer to the Outstanding Series categories, where shows like Empire, black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and Fresh Off the Boat were all shut out, but this is a welcome improvement, not least because it emphasizes the diversity of performances on television, as opposed to the Best Actor Oscar nominations, which were mostly just variations of “troubled white man overcomes adversity to do great things.”

Bad – The continued presence of Downton Abbey.  Look, I’ve watched every episode of Downton and have written about it quite a bit.  But this hasn’t been a great show for a few years now.  It’s a good show, certainly, but not one of the seven best shows on television.  And, while Jim Carter is perfectly fine, he’s about the third or fourth best supporting actor on that show.  Thankfully, we’ve only got one more year of the series taking Emmy slots from (hopefully) more deserving shows.

Weird – The love for Better Call Saul.  Maybe this isn’t that weird.  Saul was a really good show, after all.  But for all the apprehension there was surrounding the idea of a Breaking Bad prequel, for the show to land Emmy nods for Outstanding Series, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, and Writing (the fifth-most major nominations for any series), it’s just a little strange – great, but strange.

Good – The splitting of Outstanding Variety Series into “Talk” and “Sketch” categories.  The category was dominated for years by Saturday Night Live and an array of late night talk shows.  By splitting the category in two we get some recognition for the Inside Amy Schumers, Key & Peeles, Drunk Historys, and Portlandias of the world.  More is almost always better, and this provides a new venue for deserving shows.

Bad – No Nick Offerman.  Ron Swanson is one of the iconic comedy characters of all time and yet we’re going to go seven years without Nick Offerman receiving even so much as a nomination for the part.  It really is a shame.  It really is hard to think of a more deserving actor to never receive an Emmy nomination.

Weird – The Stunt Coordination nominees.  I have nothing against the nominees in this category, but to leave out shows like Banshee, Strike Back, or Arrow just seems crazy.  I mean, just watch this scene from Banshee and tell me that this is not some of the best stunt coordination of the year (and cinematography and makeup work and a host of other things).  Or the Daredevil one shot?  

There was some amazing stunt work on television this year.  Unfortunately, most of it didn’t get nominated.

Good – Manhattan, Halt and Catch Fire, and Daredevil all being nominated for Main Title Design.  This is always a weird category that rarely makes sense, but these three shows all had great opening credits and any would be worth of victory.

Bad – The Amazing Race.  I loved The Amazing Race.  It was the only reality show I watched for a very long time.  But in the last few years, the show seems to have lost the meaning of “Race.”  It’s now just a collection of obstacles spread throughout the world.  Combined with a relatively lackluster collection of contestants this past year, I just can’t support the show anymore in its run for Outstanding Reality – Competition Program.

Weird – Alan Menken somehow failing in his EGOT attempt.  He wrote thirty songs for Galavant and somehow failed to get a single one nominated for Outstanding Music and Lyrics.  Granted, I don’t know that they were particularly great songs, but it was surprising nonetheless.  With Galavant’s somewhat stunning renewal, however, he’ll get another shot next year.

Overall, it was a really good year for the Emmys.  Sure, I can nitpick here and there, but there are a lot of new faces and new shows, deserving names being nominated, and, really, the only thing I would ask for would be “more” – more nominees spreading the love around to more television.  It’s a vast and diverse world out there and it’d be nice to see more of that represented.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

If I Had an Emmy Ballot 2015: Outstanding Drama and Comedy Series

Can Orange Is the New Black survive the move from comedy to drama?

This is it, the Emmy nominations are about a half-hour away and we’ve already covered all of the main acting categories.  That brings us to the big show:  the Outstanding Series categories – Best in Show, if you will.  As I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts my comedy viewing was a little light this year, so there are a couple of sure-thing nominees you won’t see here, like Veep or Transparent.  The drama side, on the other hand, is incredibly deep with almost twenty shows to choose from. 

As for the actual nominees, it will be an interesting year.  The academy expanded the Outstanding Series categories to seven nominees meaning we might get some fresh blood.  On the drama side, True Detective and Breaking Bad are both gone, but Orange Is the New Black will certainly take one of those two spots.  That leaves only two open drama slots barring a surprising turn against Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Mad Men.  The comedy side has a similar problem, with only Orange’s space opening up for a new show.  Transparent seems like an obvious candidate to fill that gap and I don’t see a lot of other changes, meaning only one other show can join the party..

We’ll start my selections off on the drama side with FX’s The Americans.  I wrote a decent amount about this show when I discussed Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Emmy candidates, but it should suffice to say that The Americans is one of television’s most consistently excellent shows.  Everything about it works, from the home life of Philip and Elizabeth, to the spycraft, to individual scenes like Philip’s alter-ego exposing himself to his other wife, a mark who had no idea what she had gotten involved in.  For whatever reason, this series has flown entirely under the Emmy radar, and that’s a damn shame.

I’m finding it impossible to be too hyperbolic about the success of Game of Thrones.  Every year I wonder how it’s going to sustain itself and build on the previous season and every year they figure out.  The show’s fifth season soared largely because it finally revealed its endgame.  All of this fighting over thrones and lands is meaningless.  The real war is still ahead, with the White Walkers, whose utter devastation of the Wildlings and Jon Snow’s forces was the highlight of the season, on one side and Dany’s dragons almost certainly on the other.  Anything else at this point is just sidelight.

Justified might have been television’s most up-and-down show.  When it was firing on all cylinders, as in season two, there were few shows more energetic, action-packed, and even funny, than Justified.  But when it was stumbling, it was often times a mediocre show still anchored by a few good performances.  The show’s final season was, thankfully, an “all cylinders” kind of year, with the story of Raylan Givens wrapped up about as well as it could be.  Garrett Dillahunt and Sam Eliot brought the evil this year, with their plot to take over Harlan but, really, everybody this year got time to shine.  Not many shows get to go out at their best, but Justified was pretty darn close.

The Leftovers was not an easy show to watch.  Bad things happened to good people constantly.  Hell, the entire premise – of a show set three years after two percent of the world’s population vanished for no reason – was about bad things happening to good people.  But, ultimately, The Leftovers became a show about grief, about balancing the need to remember our loved ones with the need to move on and what happens when we favor one over the other.  It was difficult subject matter, to be sure, but powerful.

I don’t know that Mad Men’s final season was its best, but the bar was set so high for the show that even a slight dip in quality puts it well ahead of most other shows on television.  This past year was, at points, disjointed, with Don trying to find meaning and purpose in his life and the world of Sterling, Cooper, and Partners in constant flux.  But, ultimately, everybody got an ending that suited them.  And the journey was pretty great, too.

I still don’t like putting Orange Is the New Black in the drama category, but here it is.  OITNB, more than any show right now, is perfectly comfortable in its own skin  Here’s a show with one of the most diverse casts on television, not because they’re consciously trying to be diverse, but because that’s what the story demands.  One of several shows this year to take a big leap forward in its sophomore season, OITNB is one of the very best series on television – comedy or drama.

A lot has been written about the “slowness” of Sundance’s Rectify, about how it takes place over a short period of time and nothing much happens.  But the truth is, Rectify, more than just about any other show on television, is about the journey.  The show seems utterly unconcerned with Daniel’s actual guilt or innocence.  Sure there’s the constant threat of him having to go back to prison, but you have to figure that’s the case for any person suddenly released from death row.  Rectify may not be everybody, but it certainly is for me.

Others Considered: Banshee, Empire, The Flash, Fortitude, Halt and Catch Fire, The Knick, Manhattan, Masters of Sex, Vikings, The Walking Dead

On the comedy side of things, we start with Brooklyn Nine-Nine which, like Orange Is the New Black, Rectify, and another show about to appear on this list, took a huge step forward in its second season.  The characters were fleshed out and grouped together in new and interesting ways while the laughs just kept coming.  Nobody’s going to mistake Nine-Nine for high-brow comedy, but it is the one show on television that consistently makes me laugh more than any other.

The CW’s Jane the Virgin is all about heart.  It was a complete surprise that a show this crazy could maintain its quality from week to week, but it did.  The telenovela plots were often outrageous, but the show succeeded largely by grounding itself in the characters, especially in the relationship between Jane, her mother, and her grandmother.  Jane was top-notch comedy from start to finish, which is incredibly hard to do on network television these days.

I don’t know that you could find a show more different from Jane the Virgin than Louie.  Its constant tone of almost dread makes a great counterpoint for its humor, which is typically about making Louie look like an idiot.  Mostly, though Louie has a way with story.  He knows how to craft his stories, whether it takes two episodes, six episodes, or eight minutes.  The economy of storytelling is marvelous.

Parks and Recreation took a victory lap in 2015, finishing its improbable seven season run in style.  The three-year time jump reinvigorated the show, giving life to new stories that helped inform old relationships.  The war between Leslie and Ron was a little difficult to watch, but its resolution was worth it all.  And the sendoff each character received was perfect.  Sure, everybody got a happy ending, but that’s the only way that Parks and Rec could go out.

The last show to take a sophomore leap was HBO’s Silicon Valley, which went from funny and clever in its 2014 to flat-out great in 2015.  Silicon Valley draws occasional comparisons to Entourage in the way its characters are always being faced with new, outside challenges, but the biggest difference is that not everything ends up working out perfectly for the Valley characters.  There’s no guarantee of a happy ending on this show, which makes the drama that much better.

As I said when discussing the supporting actors, Togetherness is a difficult show to watch.  It’s about an imperfect marriage that may or may not be falling apart and it’s unclear whether it will work out.  It’s not that either one is eager for things to be over, they just don’t know how to keep things going.  For those who can move past the subject matter, though, it’s a very rewarding piece.

Lastly, we come to Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  As I’ve said before, the premise is ridiculous, and the show likely would have tanked on NBC, where it was originally supposed to air.  But, somehow, everything comes together.  Kimmy’s gullibility meshes nicely with the Titus’s outsized personality and Jacqueline’s unbounded narcissism.  It’s not a perfect show, and still holds to a network sensibility, but it provides a lot of laughs and has a lot of heart.

Others Considered: Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Girls

So those are my final picks for the best television shows of the 2014-15 season.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.