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Each TV Network Does Dramas Differently: Here’s How

Each TV Network Does Dramas Differently: Here's How

Thirty years ago, when I began writing episodic television, there were network dramas and syndicated shows. These days, when I’m teaching one-hour drama, that single catch-phrase encompasses everything that fits the time slot. But the explosion of different outlets means that one-size no longer fits all. Each type of network behaves differently. What follows is a taxonomy of the four major kinds of networks and how their shows differ from those on other kinds of networks.

A few necessary caveats:

I’m generalizing here. You’ll find counter-examples. I can find them, too.

No human being can watch everything good – much less everything – on TV today. I’ve left out an entire class of network – the blue-sky network – mainly because I’m not as familiar with what goes on there. As for the networks I do discuss, I’m drawing on the shows I’ve been watching in some depth. There are others, many others.

There are shows and networks discussed below where I’ve worked with the creators and executives and those with creators and execs I’ve never met. While I’ve written and produced for more than a few of the networks, I haven’t for any of the specific shows cited. 

HBO and Showtime:

It is TV (despite the brilliant advertising slogan). It’s just a different kind of TV and not because of tits and “fuck.” (Twenty years ago, this was the first advice one got before pitching the premium networks: do not say your show was blank with tits. This would get you bounced out of the room.)

The reason premium cable changed television was because they were dependent upon subscribers, not advertisers. The implications of this are profound: unlike all the other networks, HBO and Showtime don’t care how many people are watching any given show. And they don’t care if, after “Game of Thrones,” you watch “Silicon Valley.”  The moment you subscribed, they made their money. They are after an aggregated audience, not the largest audience in any time slot.

HBO doesn’t care if I watch “Girls”; it was designed to get young women to subscribe. My viewing is a bonus. And they don’t care if the “Girls” audience watches “Looking.” That show is designed to get the gay male audience to subscribe. Falloff from one show to the other doesn’t really matter.

The artistic implications of this are, in and of themselves, enormous. Luckily for HBO, Showtime, and, most of all, us, the rise of the premium cable channels coincided with the DVR and the advent of streaming. 

The oft-repeated notion that premium cable is the turn-of-our-century 19th century novel is a direct result of the confluence of these two factors. “Homeland,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Nurse Jackie” – none of them need to end a story within a single episode. They are written the way Trollope wrote – each season contains the complete story rather than each episode, but you do best if you watch the entire series just as Trollope’s series novels are best understood if read in order.

Each of those series (as well as “Girls,” “Looking,” and “Boardwalk Empire,” among others) fit a television genre. “Nurse Jackie” is a hospital show; “The Wire” a direct descendent of “Hill Street,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Homicide.” But because the premium networks have no fear of pissing off part of the audience – in fact, because they are selling the notion that you are paying to see something you can’t see on advertiser supported networks – they reinvent the form. “Nurse Jackie” tells us in its title that this is about support staff, not heroic doctors. And, of course, it’s about a nurse and mother who is a drug addict. It’s also a dramatic half-hour, albeit one that clocks in at 28 and not 22 minutes. A beautiful form. “The Wire” refuses to tell us what side we’re rooting for. And while there were corrupt cops on “Hill Street,” they were never our cops. On “The Wire,” they were leads.

The lack of commercials also means that the sign-posting used on all advertising sponsored programming – the visible act break, also a common element in live theatre – is missing. That means that while the overall story-telling is novelistic, each episode is written in the same manner as a movie – the audience must be given subtle hints as to where they are in the story. 

But most of all, the need for an aggregate and not a mass audience allows HBO and Showtime to cast differently. Much was made of this when “The Sopranos” first appeared: had the show been on NBC, James Gandolfini would never have been Tony Soprano. (And I doubt that Edie Falco would be Carmella – which means, no “Nurse Jackie”.) On a traditional broadcast network, Carrie Mathison would still be blond – but she might not be Claire Danes. You cannot imagine a naked Lena Dunham on anything but a premium channel. Premium networks cast the best actor; advertising networks cast the prettiest one. 

There is one major distinction to be made between HBO and Showtime (and, for that matter, all other networks, including Netflix): in an HBO series, place is of utmost importance, as central to the series as any character. (“Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” are exceptions, of course, because one is fantasy and the other period.)

“Homeland” spent three seasons in Charlotte, NC; “House of Cards” shoots in Baltimore; “The Americans” is often visibly New York; all three merely visit DC. 

HBO, meanwhile, makes distinctions within a metropolitan area: “Sex and the City” was not merely Manhattan but specific neighborhoods suited to the characters; Girls is “Brooklyn”; “The Sopranos,” New Jersey. Detroit was essential to “Hung”; “Treme” was as about New Orleans as ‘Entourage” was about L.A. 

HBO shows are as rooted in specific parts of the American landscape as the New Wave was anchored in France (particularly Paris) and neo-realism to its regional Italian settings. These are hardly the first TV shows to be shot on location, but HBO is the first network to make this commitment (thanks, of course, to its enormous cash flow). And it makes a difference. We sense it, we feel it, we know it. It affects the writing, the casting, every aspect of the show.

Netflix and Amazon

When Netflix released all thirteen episodes of the first season of “House of Cards” at once, it didn’t just institutionalize binge viewing; it created a literal telenovela, a series that wasn’t like a novel – it was a novel. 

Premium networks basically have two discrete audiences: ones who subscribe and watch week by week and those who wait for the series to be released on DVD or, well, Netflix or Amazon, and then binge. This means that (like Dickens and Conan Doyle’s readers) the shows must be satisfying on an episodic basis while still propelling forward like a novel. 

“House of Cards” is all propulsion (as is “Orange is the New Black”). Watching it is like reading a really strong narrative – it’s designed to make you skip work, delay dinner, and maybe even postpone sex. 

To truly understand the difference, compare either Netflix series to its polar opposite, “Breaking Bad.” Even those of us who fell behind could not truly binge. There simply came a point where we needed a break between episodes. Each episode was a full meal and required digestion before we were ready to partake again.

The streaming series never sates until the very end. 

The key to this is the thirteen episode season – now standard on everything except the traditional broadcast networks.

Thirteen episodes is a lot more comprehensible both for the viewer and the writers. For one thing, while you can write thirteen great episodes, you can’t manage twenty-two. There are going to be ups and downs. And thirteen is about the limit if you want to tell one large story (which is what both Netflix series to date do). It allows longer pre-production time and more lead time in the writing. That lead time allows show runners to write more complete episodes. (It also meant that traditional exclusivity agreements had to be renegotiated in the current WGA contract, but that’s for a business story, not this taxonomy.)

If you read a page a minute, thirteen hours is what it takes to read a 780 page novel – about the length of Dickens or George R.R. Martin. 

AMC and FX

Twenty years ago, the shows that are now on AMC or FX would have been on Fox. (Think “X Files,” “Rescue Me,” and “The Shield.)” That’s because when Fox was fledgling, it needed to make a lot of noise to provoke attention. AMC and FX had to do the same more recently.

Mad Men” broke the barrier, but it’s the exception to the upper-tier cable rule. It was the perfect HBO show that HBO never made – a conventionally structured ensemble TV drama with a dominant male lead that abandoned the “life and death” network prescription. 

What followed were not conventional TV shows at all – “Justified,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Americans,” “Walking Dead,” and “Breaking Bad. “

Each one of these is a film genre that the movies have abandoned, reconceived and reconfigured for one-hour episodic. “Justified” is the crime drama that used to be directed by Don Siegal; “Sons of Anarchy,” the motorcycle movie; “The Americans,” the serious (i.e., not Bond) spy thriller; “Walking Dead,” the horror film (the one still healthy film genre); “Breaking Bad,” the crime lord film (think “Scarface,” either version). With “Fargo,” FX has appropriate the art house film. The reason we’re not seeing limited special effects science fiction here is that the Sci-Fi network has taken that former movie mainstay for its own.

Both networks veer towards the South, a region otherwise unexploited by other networks. Both take genre material seriously, managing to be both popular entertainment and serious drama simultaneously. If the premium cable antecedent is the 19th century British novel, the upper tier cable’s progenitors are John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, and (literally in the case of “Justified”) Elmore Leonard.

It’s worth noting that some of these shows are written in the traditional manner, with act breaks, while others are written, premium style, without. The commercial breaks in “Mad Men” feel arbitrary because they are. 

Both networks like to run very long first acts followed by extremely short acts, making them best viewed on DVD or TiVo. (FX does not allow you to fast forward through the commercials when streaming.)

The most radical approach to restructuring, however, is not on the upper tier networks but on CBS, whose best show, “The Good Wife,” runs a traditional first act as the show’s pre-credit teaser. That’s why you’re always startled when the title card comes out – you’ve become so engrossed in the show, you’ve forgotten you haven’t seen the credits. 

The Traditional Broadcast Networks

So where does that leave the traditional broadcast networks? It’s worth remembering that the current Golden Age of one-hours began with “Hill Street” and “St. Elsewhere” and continued at least through “Homicide” and “ER.”

Like “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife” shows that first-rate work is still being done. (I must admit here that time has prevented me from seeing either “Hannibal” or “Elementary,” both of which have admirers I respect.)

On one level, the networks are making what they’ve always made – life and death dramas in traditional genres. “The Good Wife,” after all, started out as a legal mystery (and then became a romance and then a law show and seems on the verge of becoming a political drama – its ability to reinvent itself is dizzying). “Scandal” is Dallas. The traditional networks are, shall we say, traditional. Cop shows. Medical shows. Law shows. Mysteries. 

What’s changed is that these networks are now in the franchise business. It used to be that the Platonic pilot pitch was “the same but different.” Now, it’s the same but in a different location. This is what Dick Wolf hath wrought. What “Law and Order” began, “CSI” and “NCIS” have followed. The shows themselves are the brands that CBS, NBC, and ABC used to be.

What hasn’t changed is network casting. There are only two ways to cast a traditional network show: with a pre-established star (Julianna Margulies, Joe Mantegna) or with pretty people with spectacular hair and make-up. Given the choice between a great actor with an odd look and a very good actor with a traditional look, the broadcast networks go old school. (“Law and Order” and “Good Wife” temper this by drawing on New York stage actors for secondary roles.) 

When “Justified” sent Ava Crowder to prison last season, they cut Joelle Carter’s hair and deprived her of make-up. When Peter Florrick was in prison, Chris Noth managed to keep Mr. Big’s hair stylist.

More than anything else, it’s the casting and grooming that make traditional network shows feel out of date. 

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