If you ever wondered why television viewers have been leaving the broadcast networks in droves for cable, just look at this fall season's new TV schedule.
This week, I've written a fall TV package that looks at the 22 new pilots from CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and the CW (beginning on page E1). Check it out for descriptions and my brief impressions.
Of this year's offerings, I was only excited about one new show, Fox's off-kilter "Running Wilde," by the same team that brought you the wildly hilarious "Arrested Development."
Am I just being a curmudgeon? Maybe not. Take a look at the list of new shows again. Of the 16 dramas premiering this season, nine are old-fashioned crime dramas the standard legal procedural where a cop or lawyer investigates the case of the week and then convicts the guilty by the end of the episode. They're called legal procedurals because they're only about solving the crime collecting every hair sample and fingerprint that leads to the finale. What these shows don't have is a lot of soul; the actors are just people in scenes who interview witnesses, pick up bloody shell casings and chase down suspects to move the story along.
This isn't a new argument by any means, but this fall season really underscores it: Cable television continues to run circles around the broadcast networks.
There's no comparison when you consider cable offerings such as "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and HBO's epic new "Boardwalk Empire." Those shows have more complicated characters, accomplished acting and skilled writing. Even lesser cable networks like USA make legal procedurals with a little wit and with deeper characters, such as "Monk" or "Royal Pains."
One of "Breaking Bad's" best episodes was one in which the two main characters, played by Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, talked in a single room the entire hour. "Mad Men" broadcast a deeply rich episode a couple of weeks ago when Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) worked through one night in the office.
Those are the kind of daring, expertly written episodes you would never see on ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC.
It isn't because pay cable networks can show violence, language or nudity while the regular networks can't. It's because networks like HBO, AMC and FX respect the writers more and take extra care in making something new and unique.
The problem with the broadcast networks is there is too much money at stake. While networks like ABC and CBS have been bleeding viewers at sharp rates, they still draw millions more than cable on many nights. So the broadcast networks depend a lot on Nielsen ratings. Higher ratings means more viewers, which equals richer ad revenue.
In the same way Hollywood only gambles on tried-and-true summer blockbusters, the regular TV networks are only willing to make safe bets, relying on legal dramas or sitcoms like "Two and a Half Men" to draw viewers. What they don't do is raise the creative bar. There isn't a better example of that than this fall's TV schedule.
When I finished viewing the new pilots, I was in a depressing daze. There were no original ideas, no creative spark, and little to look forward to.
It's not what I expected after last year, with such charming hits as "Modern Family" and "Glee."
But the season is young, and there'll be much more to see over the next nine months. I hope a diamond in the rough will glisten underneath that pile of network rot.