We’ve all been rueing the dearth of quality network television programs for years now, but the future critics and pundits have been portending since the premieres of “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” and “Six Feet Under” has arrived. Network television is not dead, but it’s not really relevant anymore. Millions of people still tune into “NCIS,” “American Idol,” “Modern Family,” and “Big Bang Theory,” but water cooler programming has become virtually the exclusive domain of cable now. As someone who reads a lot of cultural commentary, recaps, and post-episode analysis, there are essentially three remaining network shows — two sitcoms and a drama — that provoke consistent discussion on this site and other like-minded ones: NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Fox’s “New Girl” and the growing support of ABC’s “Scandal.”
Yes, “Community” still fosters some discussion, but mostly about how bad it has become. “30 Rock” is gone. “The Office” is in its last season. “Happy Endings” has been banished to Friday and is on its way out. Most of the talk around “The Mindy Project” is whether it’s considered good enough to watch now, while a few of the last remaining great shows on network television — “Raising Hope,” “Suburgatory,” “The Good Wife,” and “Parenthood” — are mostly ignored by critics, save for the occasional “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” Piece (seriously, though: “Raising Hope” may be the best sitcom you’re not watching).
I realized late last week when the spring rerun season arrived — two to three weeks when most network shows take some time off — that I’m not really going to miss the lack of first runs, except for a very small number of shows. It’s something of a relief to be able to put all of our focus on the more culturally relevant shows like “Justified,” “The Americans,” “The Walking Dead,” “Shameless,” “Girls,” and maybe this new show on the History Channe, “The Vikings,” plus the impending arrival of “Game of Thrones,” and “Mad Men.” Those are the shows we’re going to be talking about. Most of the discussion will be positive, and either be issue-based or character-based, rather ratings-based or “Look how far this show has fallen.”
Look around. Take stock. Consider it: Take last year’s “New Girl” out of the equation, and ask yourself when was the last time networks premiered a show that 1) you cared about and that 2) hasn’t been cancelled (“Don’t Trust the B,” “Ben and Kate,”), or soon will be cancelled? (“Happy Endings”)? How excited are you, really, to watch the latest “How I Met Your Mother”? “The Office” is a chore, not a delight. “Modern Family” is amiable and likable, but hardly discussion worthy. Only ABC’s “Scandal” fits that description for me, and I don’t suspect it will be able to keep it up for much longer, although I hope I’m wrong.
NBC gets most of the flak these days for its interminably bad ratings, but consider the shows on the other networks that keep them from sinking to the same lows: “Two and a Half Men,” “Mike and Molly,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Bachelor,” “American Idol,” “The Simon Cowell American Idol,” “Survivor,” “Big Bang Theory,” and “The Following.” I mean, who honestly gives a sh*t about those shows, or NBC’s one hit this season, “Revolution” or last, “The Voice”? Does anyone feel passionate about “2 Broke Girls”? The highest rated show on NBC right now is “Saturday Night Live,” which isn’t even on primetime. But good, bad or Bieber levels of awful, it’s at least a show we talk about.
The networks have ceased to make anything interesting or lasting. In their efforts to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, they’ve alienated practically everyone besides the most casual television viewer. The networks have the best infrastructure in place to grab 20 million viewers, bu they’ll never do it because they’re trying too hard to do so. You cannot focus-test your way to another “Seinfeld” or “Cheers.” You’ve got to create something unique. There’s nearly 75 hours of primetime programming on the Big Four each week, and about 70 of those hours I could give or take. The 13 hours I spent on Netflix’s “House of Cards” in one weekend was nearly as much time that I spent enjoyingnetwork television over the course of nearly a month. I get more out of ABC Family — a cable network targeted at young females — than I do out of NBC. I’d pay $20 a month for FX before I paid $2 a month for CBS.
There are over 100 pilots in development for next year’s slate of network programming, but having read the plot descriptions and the talent involved in most of them, it looks like more of the same: Broad comedies about groups of friends or single parents, fairy-tale dramas, legal shows and high-concept procedurals. Nothing great. Nothing lasting.
Cord cutting — giving up cable and relying on Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes for our programming needs — is very trendy now, but ironically, it’s those shows that are harder to get without cable that I’m more interested in. I pay $12 a month for HBO, and it’s worth every goddamn cent. I pay over $100 a month for FX, AMC, and the right to purchase HBO and Showtime, and it’s practically a better value than the four free network channels. The industry is turning upside down: It’s those lower-rated, quality niche programs that we’re willing to pay for, but hardly anyone would be willing to pay for what is being spoonfed to us nightly on ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS.
You truly do get what you pay for.