What is the best network on television?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Or, more accurately, it’s not a question that often produces an objective response. Ratings, prestige, delivery method and perhaps most strongly, personal choice, play major factors in determining how any one person evaluates greatness. ABC is responsible (seriously, own up to your transgressions, Alphabet) for three of my wife’s favorite shows; I don’t watch that network unless it’s college football season. Who’s right?
Obviously, me, because I’m male with a sophisticated TV palette. Well, no one right now.
Our TV Power Rankings might help solve the problem. Power rankings generate several interesting by-products. Discussion, for one. That’s a biggie here in Internetland. Also, analysis and trends. Quantifying previously subjective data doesn’t just provide more accurate rankings. It allows us to examine patterns and movement and deviations. We’ll understand not only how far behind the broadcast behemoths are from their prestige cable counterparts, but the size of the gap, too. Is it a few series, or a dozen? Since we’ll recalculate our Power Rankings every quarter, you’ll be able to see which networks are rising or declining, as well as which shows shifted tiers.
The methodology is simple: we placed every scripted series into a tier, each with an assigned point value. Tier 1 is reserved for the true elites, series that dominate discussion and own waterfront property on annual best-of lists. The next group — shows that are very good or exhibit great promise — belong in Tier 2. The third tier is for the “40 Degree Day” series (an expression borrowed from a Tier 1 Hall of Famer): shows that don’t really have anything to say. Tier 4 shows…well, they don’t have much going for them in terms of quality, ratings, awards or pop culture impressions. The final score is calculated by totaling the point values and dividing by the number of shows. Averaging levels the playing field and denies the Big Four and large cable players an advantage simply because they produce twice as many series as their smaller counterparts.
A few ground rules:
- A content provider needs to produce at least five scripted series that ran new episodes between January 1, 2014 and February 4, 2015 in order to make the cut. BBC America, Amazon and Cinemax, for instance, didn’t meet the minimum threshold but will likely qualify later this year.
- To be included on a network roster, a series’ newest or last season must have premiered after January 1, 2014. Can’t bleed over from 2013.
- Any series that already premiered in 2015 must have at least three episodes under its belt to be included on a network roster. Sorry, Fresh Off The Boat. We’ll see you in the spring.
Subjectivity isn’t completely eliminated. Slotting shows into tiers is still more art than science. We tried to build consensus across the board through a combination of awards, ratings, staff opinions and Metacritic scores, but popular shows breed passionate fans who may take issue with where their favorite series is assigned regardless of criteria. And that’s great! This is the Internet, after all. What fun is this if we all agree?
At the very least, we hope these rankings make it slightly easier to determine a pecking order, what to watch and where to invest your valuable time.
TNT is the only network, cable or broadcast, in our rankings without a Tier 1 or Tier 2 series to its name. Hence, its position on the totem pole. Ed Burns’ upcoming crime drama Public Morals may be The Dynamite’s (is that a thing?) best chance at vacating the cellar in the near future.
Dustin already covered NBC’s stellar sitcom streak since Bob Greenblatt took over The Peacock in 2012, but his dramas have been almost as atrocious. Revolution, Crisis, Crossbones, Revolution, Taxi Brooklyn. A drunken octopus could choose better properties to develop.
“Television’s most-watched network” barely beat a cable outlet that airs four WWE shows. Les Mooves must be thrilled. The Eye isn’t totally hopeless — among networks, only NBC boasts another Tier 1 series. And some of their procedurals are actually quite watchable (Person of Interest, Elementary). It’s the blimp full of garbage that sinks CBS. Twenty-four of their 29 scripted series landed in Tier 3 or Tier 4. Not even NBC performed that poorly.
It’s great that characters are always welcome at USA. Perhaps extend that same hospitality to talented writers and showrunners, too. Until then, it’s probably not wise to cancel the one worthwhile show in your stable (Benched) after one season without a suitable replacement. Actually, it’s not smart to cancel a good show regardless fo whatever else you have in the pipeline. The club isn’t full.
We have our first score in the fours. ABC has just enough Tier 2 series in their lineup to offset their bottom feeders…for now. With Selfie and Suburgatory cancelled and Agent Carter already halfway through a limited run, ABC needs a few hit pilots if they want to avoid tumbling down the rankings.
10. The CW
You may be surprised to see The CW finish ahead of three other networks. Then you look at a lineup anchored by two well-made superhero series and an irreverent Golden Globe winner, and the numbers start to make sense. Another strong season from Jane the Virgin and we might have to start talking about CW as a contender for the network crown.
The genre network’s steady if unspectacular approach to programming — no risky standouts, but no unwatchable clunkers, either — resulted in a top 10 finish. If any of their upcoming original content — looking at you, The Expanse — proves a worthy Battlestar successor, SyFy could fly up the rankings.
All hail our network overlords…for now, anyway. FOX currently wears the crown, but regimes change quickly. Especially when two of your seven Tier 2 shows — Enlisted and Surviving Jack — were inexplicably canceled. Remove those entries and FOX’s new average is 4.27. That places them below the CW and within spitting distance of ABC.
It’s hard to understate how much The Missing benefits Starz in these rankings. Its late 2014 debut ensured the pay-cable network hit the minimum series threshold, and the twisty crime drama’s quality provided Starz with a second Tier 2 series to go along with Outlander. With American Gods and Ash Vs. Evil Dead on the horizon, the established premium giants might have another member this time next year.
Our second No. 7 entry wasn’t even in the original programming game this time three years ago. Netflix — with 320 hours of new and returning content scheduled to debut in the next 10 months alone — is the content provider with the largest potential swing. If Daredevil, Bloodlines and Narcos turn out to be Tier 1 or Tier 2 material, the streaming provider may very well top next year’s rankings. Miss on one or two, though, and TNT might need to make room in cellar.
What a difference timing makes. If these rankings were calculated, say, right after Homeland’s two-part fourth season premiere, it’s doubtful the pay-cable outlet would earn a spot in the top five. Yet here they are. Showtime’s two blue bloods are long in the tooth but still going strong, and their freshmen series, while flawed, weren’t bad enough to wind up in Tier 4. The Affair earned (an admittedly ridiculous) Golden Globe for Best Drama Series, and Penny Dreadful has just enough crazy Eva Green to mitigate the juvenile writing.
Here’s a lesson, kids: if you’re going to stick with a small lineup, make sure one of your five shows is a perennial awards recipient and another is the highest rated series in cable history. Yes, Mad Men is nearing retirement. Yes, AMC’s newest offerings range from disappointing to laughable. Yes, the phrase “creatively bankrupt” could be used to describe the network’s spinoff-laden future. Today, AMC is still an elite brand.
FX is the only network with more shows in Tier 1 than in any other category. So why the hell are they third? Bad comedy choices. Chozen, Partners, Saint George and Legit are the feces-covered anchors dragging down the entire programming lineup. And that’s without including Anger Management, whose 90 GODDAMN EPISODE SEASON premiered in 2013. If two of those four were even mediocre Tier 3 series, FX tops the rankings by a substantial margin.
Second? TV’s most respected network is second? HBO owns the most popular (Game of Thrones), the most buzzed about (True Detective) and the funniest (Veep) series on television. And they’re second? Yeah. But it’s a close second. A real close second. So close that if Togetherness, which has only aired three episodes as of Friday, sustains its excellent start it will easily move into Tier 2. That change alone would be enough for HBO to takeover the top spot. With the highly anticipated series like Westworld, The Brink and Ballers arriving later this year, HBO doesn’t appear to be in danger falling behind the leader any time soon.
1. Comedy Central
We’re as surprised as you are. Comedy Central has churned out great series for a while , but the depth of their lineup wasn’t apparent until we put it on paper. The network simply doesn’t make a bad show. In fact, Comedy Central is the only outlet on our list that placed more than half its programming in the top two tiers, and it’s the only one with a score that exceeded six. If we stretched the definition of scripted series to include late-night fare like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Comedy Central would take the crown by almost a full point. Pretty amazing work for a network with the near-impossible task of creating a dozen unique, consistently hilarious series.