Cable is king, streaming is the apparent heir, and broadcast is dying…when it comes to dramas. Be it through statistics, essays or interviews, this much has been made exhaustively clear during the golden age of television; so much so it’s become an accepted fact both outside the industry and within it. How accepted? So much so that instead of laying out all the reasons cable has an advantage over broadcast in the drama department, we’re going to let Rob Lowe do it for us:
“I, at this moment, don’t really have much of an interest to do a drama on a network. I don’t think you can compete with what you can do on cable. I just don’t think it’s possible, just in terms of the stories you’re allowed to tell, the freedom of stories that they give you. It’s a really unfair advantage. I mean, it’s time to bring back the CableACE Awards because it really is [unfair]. You have to do 22 [episodes], you have to write to commercials, you have standards and practices, you have language restrictions, you have content restrictions. On cable, if it’s dramatic, you can do it. That’s an unfair fight.”
Lowe, a former star of and Emmy nominee for the NBC drama “The West Wing,” said the above when speaking to Indiewire at the Summer TCAs. He was in attendance to promote his new Fox comedy “The Grinder,” a clever send-up of courtroom dramas, but not a show dependent on tearing down its broadcast brethren to succeed (movies as well as cable series are just as guilty — pun intended). Mr. Lowe had no real motivation for saying the above, other than being asked about his ability to succeed on broadcast television while so many other big name actors make the move to cable or streaming. He’s simply reiterating an idea that’s become engrained in our culture as fact, no matter what the people behind “The Good Wife,” “Scandal,” “The Blacklist” and even Fox’s own “Empire” want us to believe.
But what about comedies? Always the second fiddle at awards shows, in terms of general prestige the happy and sad clowns consistently get passed over for overtly serious fare. Yet within the genre, broadcast is still on top. “Modern Family” has won five consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys and could crack a record standing for the past 16 years if it takes home its sixth trophy this Sunday. Not only have broadcast comedies continued to thrive at awards shows, but their commercial and critical appeal are in top shape, as well.
Sticking with “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom has seen a bit of a dip in ratings during its sixth season, but remained in the Top 25 for the year and spent its first five seasons circling the Top 10. Other series like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” (both from CBS) pull in even bigger numbers, while the only cable comedy to win Outstanding Series at the Emmys remains “Sex and the City” way back in 2001. Since then, it’s been “30 Rock” (three wins), “Everybody Loves Raymond” (two wins), “Friends,” “Arrested Development,” and “The Office” (one win each). Only one of those winners might upset a considerable chunk of critics, and (despite the backlash in recent years) most TV aficionados were fine with “Modern Family” winning its first two or three trophies.
So what’s the secret? Why have comedies been able to keep performing on broadcast while dramas can’t? Let’s look to another more recent example for insight. When “The Last Man on Earth” premiered earlier this year, no one knew what to make of it. The ads focused on Will Forte destroying things and only attempted to convey plot through the title. The show was a surprise hit, but it also lead to a key split in viewers: some find it brilliantly progressive while others consider it mean-spirited and predictable.
“That show is great and edgy and weird and funny,” Lowe said about “The Last Man on Earth.” “The word ‘broad’ means writ large, so there will always be stuff that’s not for everybody. It’s not niche programming. There’s plenty of popular shows on broadcast that aren’t for me. But there are plenty — a surprising amount of them — that are, and they’re in the comedy world.”
That sort of difference in opinion isn’t necessarily as big a problem for awards competitions. It’s difficult to predict what will capture the hearts of the TV Academy, as Emmy-nominated directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller pointed out, citing the “fickle” nature of award shows. Still, Lord does recognize the continued hot streak of broadcast comedies (including their own, “The Last Man on Earth”).
“I do think there’s a great tradition that’s hard to ignore in broadcast that’s been such a great medium for comedy writing over the decade and so groundbreaking,” Lord said during a recent interview with Indiewire. “Historically speaking, I think there’s probably a lot of institutional memory about the favorites of broadcast. My boring answer is there’s a wealth of great television on broadcast and all the other platforms. There are these juggernaut shows like ‘Modern Family’ that have delivered and other stuff that feels like it’s really pushing the envelope.”
Lowe, though, is willing to go a step further, arguing broadcast may actually have an edge on cable networks and streaming giants.
“Now, on comedy, I actually think [broadcast] is the only place that the networks are as strong or stronger. I would make a case that, pound for pound, comedies are funnier on [broadcast]. I mean, look, there are shows I love on cable — I love ‘Silicon Valley’ — that are funny. But, listen, I’ll watch ‘Modern Family’ over ‘Nurse Jackie’ any day.”
When pressed as to why, Mr. Lowe — who began this discussion by emphasizing how much he’s thought about this topic and the importance of it to him, personally, as someone who makes his livelihood primarily through the medium — backed up his opinions with solid reasoning.
Breaking down his argument a bit, the audience expectations placed on production value are far lower for comedy than drama. Comedies are more cost-effective. They’re shorter (traditionally) and usually reuse sets and costumes, which are far less elaborate on a show like “Parks and Recreation” than “Game of Thrones.” Multi-camera sitcoms are significantly cheaper, and also offer the allure of longevity through lucrative syndication deals. These factors allow the broadcast networks to remain competitive without breaking the bank, or even changing up their tried-and-true formula that much.
All that being said, cable is still a major threat to broadcast comedy. As Miller points out, he and Lord were the only directors nominated at this year’s Emmys for a broadcast comedy. The other four were all behind cable or streaming shows, and five of the seven series nominees aren’t from broadcast. Plus, many think this is the year “Modern Family” finally loses in the Outstanding Series category (though the same people were expecting its ouster last year). Even if “Modern Family” does fall one year shy of the record, it still remains tied with “Frasier,” a classic sitcom released during the heyday of the genre. That’s exactly the parallel broadcast executives are looking for, and if you combine it with Mr. Lowe’s idea about a “renaissance,” those nomination ratios could be more than enough to keep broadcast comedy thriving for years to come — which is more than we can say for dramas.