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Can Smart Dramas Survive on Network Television?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 5, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 5, 2012 |

Last week, TV Guide asked the question, “Can Smart Comedies Survive?” The publication wondered, with so many smart, sophisticated comedies on the bubble, if networks will continue to push ahead with smart comedy programming. As evidence, it offered several low-rated shows that are perpetually on the bubble, like ” 30 Rock,” “Cougar Town,” “Raising Hope,” “Happy Endings” and “Community.” It’s true that those shows are on the bubble again this year, but there’s little realistic doubt that “30 Rock” and “Happy Endings” will get picked up, while “Community” and even “Cougar Town” will likely get a fourth season if its ratings hold, low as they are. (“Raising Hope” faces stiffer competition, and isn’t as syndication friendly, so it’s likely to see the ax).

The reality, however, is that there are very few huge hits at all on network television anymore. “American Idol’s” ratings are eroding, and the only huge hit the networks have produced over the last two season is “The Voice.” There have been modest hits, like “Once Upon a Time,” “Unforgettable,” and “Hawaii Five-O,” but the days when a new slate of programming could fetch 10-15 million new viewers is long gone thanks to competition on cable. Rest assured, while network ratings are down, television viewership overall hasn’t changed much.

The reality is, the biggest shows on television now (once DVR ratings are accounted for) are “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” “How I Met Your Mother” has seen huge ratings gains, and “The Office” is still NBC’s top show. At least three of those four are — or once were — somewhat sophisticated comedies, while the biggest new comedy of this season is “New Girl,” another somewhat sophisticated comedy. These comedies do well on Netflix and syndication, which means more profits, which means low-rated sophisticated comedies are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt when renewal time rolls around, which means that networks are likely to continue feeding them to us.

The bigger threat, as I see it, is the dwindling number of smart, sophisticated dramas. Sitcoms are thriving, and the networks have put in orders for a lot more during this pilot season. But where are the smart, sophisticated dramas on network television? By my count, there are exactly two: “The Good Wife,” and “Parenthood,” which wrapped up its third season last week.

What the Big Four has unfortunately come to realize is that you can’t rely network audiences to invest themselves in dramas anymore. That’s why the biggest dramas on television are procedurals: They are self-contained, they don’t rely on intense character development, and missing a few episodes won’t hurt your enjoyment of subsequent episodes. They are disposable. They are built around high-concept premises. Even some of the more interesting entrants (at least in theory) — “Awake,” “Grimm,” “Person of Interest,” and “Alcatraz” — are essentially “Lost” plus a procedural: They take an interesting concept and ensure that it involves law enforcement officials so they can continue to apply the murder investigation formula.

Indeed, shows like “Parenthood” and “The Good Wife” are endangered. They don’t have marketable hooks: “Parenthood” is about a large family; “The Good Wife” is a legal drama, and one where shoes are not sold of the law offices. Each of those shows have taken pains to develop their characters, and as a result, the writers need not rely on big movements, or grand Ryan-Murphy style plot lines to keep their audiences invested. If you care about characters, small waves have huge emotional consequences, so you don’t have to risk knocking over the boat. Just as important, when we care enough about the characters, we’re more willing to forgive missteps in writing, as many of us did with the overly rushed season finale of “Parenthood” this week that still managed to pack an emotional wallop.

“Parenthood” may or may not return again next year, and according to TVByTheNumbers, even “The Good Wife” is on the bubble. Without those two, television drama is a wasteland: “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” haven’t been good for years (if they ever were), “Revenge” went downhill quickly, “Glee” is crap, and “Once Upon a Time” and “Smash” both lost me because they didn’t offer enough to ensure such a lengthy commitment.

That’s really what’s at issue with most network dramas: They ask too much. They insist we watch 22-24 episodes over the course of nine months, and with cable competition — where dramas are typically better and ask less of us (three months, tops) — it’s difficult to stay involved. Mediocre as it is, I probably would’ve stuck with “Smash” if I knew it’d be over by April. Likewise, I might have even given a bigger commitment to “Once Upon a Time” and even “Grimm.” But when you have to fill 22 episodes with season-long story lines, there tends to be a lot of stalling. Stalling breeds apathy, and apathy creates a DVR backlog. Our programming priorities shift. We need shorter doses (few episodes) of higher concentration (great characters, more compelling story lines) to keep us engaged. That’s why so many of us have stuck with “Dexter.” It may suck now, but we’re only losing 12 hours a year, not 22. Until the networks figure that out, procedurals built around high-concepts will continue to dominate the nine and ten o’clock hours while great shows like “Parenthood” and “The Good Wife” will fade into network obscurity.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.