Brian Lowry


Twitter is an interesting medium, if only because it allows TV execs -- often behind the thinnest veneer of anonymity -- to express publicly what they traditionally say in private. So it's been amusing in recent weeks to see sniping from broadcast honchos about critically acclaimed cable shows like AMC's "The Killing" and HBO's "Game of Thrones," as if some long-simmering threshold of irritation finally boiled over.

If you think about it, the major networks have good reason to resent cable's success -- and indeed the use of "success" in the context of certain low-rated series, which would even be canceled by (gasp) NBC. To an extent, Twitter has become an unexpected window into the TV process -- a forum for pet peeves and resentments once limited to off-the-record asides.

The mindset betrayed by the cable-bashing comments boils down to "Hey, more people watch our shows, so these must be overrated." This frustration is easier to understand when you consider cable has found ways to circumvent various aspects of the traditional broadcast model -- starting with the basic need for mass ratings appeal -- that have historically conspired to flummox both creativity and commercial viability on the major nets. In fact, almost every cable series thriving today has a precedent in the form of a network show that, for one reason or another, didn't survive past a season or two.

There's no more jarring illustration of this than "The Killing," AMC's absorbing, slow-moving serial about a murder and its toll on the detectives, family and political campaign touched by it. Even the slogan -- "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" -- mirrors the "Who killed Laura Palmer?" mystery that initiated "Twin Peaks," an ABC show that flamed brightly before fizzling badly in its second season. By that measure, it's easy to talk about aspiring to the conceptual freshness evident in cable fare -- as new NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt did by citing an appetite for "original, attention-getting shows" during his upfront presentation -- and much harder for broadcasters to actually make a business out of it.

Greenblatt also referenced his time in the "bulletproof world of Showtime," where ratings and advertisers weren't a consideration. Yet that only scratches the surface of cable's creative advantages, the biggest of which might be doing a dozen episodes or fewer per season of original series. Heck, AMC made a splash with six hours of "The Walking Dead." Had NBC or ABC been able to focus that intently on the first flights of "The Event" or "FlashForward," those shows might not have flown off the rails after impressive pilots.

Unfettered by a full schedule, cable channels order fewer originals and repeat them so frequently as to mitigate pressure to open big. If you missed "Thrones" because of the NBA playoffs, never fear, the serialized fantasy could be found multiple times throughout the week. For all that, the major broadcasters continue to exhibit a love-hate relationship vis-a-vis cable. They might badmouth "Mad Men" for attracting a relatively puny audience despite all of its Emmys, but then turn around and develop a pair of 1960s-era dramas for fall -- ABC's "Pan Am" and NBC's "The Playboy Club" -- that will draw unavoidable comparisons.

Similarly, some network execs took almost perverse glee in the summary rejection of Fox's "Lone Star," last fall's most critically heralded new show. Given that critics are invariably drawn to the new and risk-taking, dismissing them as being out of step with the masses is a convenient rationalization for dishing out bland meat-and-potatoes TV, if not outright junk food.

Almost every network can point to its version of the prestige play that landed with a dull thud. Moreover, many of those entries bear a striking resemblance to cable offerings that flourished, or at least endured, thanks to its less-exacting standards. Just as "Twin Peaks" preceded "The Killing," for example, Fox struck out with the inside-Hollywood comedy "Action" five years before "Entourage," which will conclude its lengthy run this summer.

And so it goes. Granted, one appreciates the pressure networks are under, but it's hard to fault cable for discovering that when you amend the rules it's possible to play a different game -- and often, creatively speaking, a more satisfying one.


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TV - Who Killed Network Television's Creative Model?