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Cable TV's Better! No, Broadcast TV's Better!

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It’s summertime, when the regular TV season ends, the off-season reality shows get rolled out and TV critics start writing manifestoes. Well, two of them, anyway. The last couple of weeks have seen big TV think pieces by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter and Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club, staking out very different positions on the debate: who’s making better TV shows, the broadcast or cable networks?

On the face of it, Goodman’s saying that cable is making the only great series now, while VanDerWerff counters that broadcast networks have the creative momentum. If you look past the caveats, both really agree on a fundamental, less-traffic-generating premise: that the broadcast networks are better at doing comedy right now and cable better at drama.

But two critics agreeing with each other is no fun! So first, let’s look at both arguments:

Goodman’s piece, published first, starts by taking exception to the claim that The Good Wife is a “great” TV show; in his view, the only broadcast drama that you can honestly call great is Friday Night Lights (which, of course, is really a cable, or rather satellite, show with a second run on NBC). The Good Wife, and several other dramas on broadcast, are “very good,” Goodman says, but let’s not get carried away.

There are a couple of arguments embedded in there, and the one I find most interesting is the idea of critical grade inflation. Simply put, “great” is one of those terms we throw around too promiscuously. If you say there are a couple dozen “great” TV shows on at any given time, you’re cheapening the term. Good point—I almost said great—but I’ll leave that aside for now.

The other argument is—wherever you set the bar for “great”—how many broadcast as opposed to cable dramas clear it? Says Goodman, the business nature of broadcast TV simply makes it harder for it to produce great dramas, as opposed to dramas you can reasonably watch while folding the laundry:

the very nature of “big tent”  programming limits the upside of greatness. It’s very difficult to be broad — successful via the ratings — and attain greatness. It’s a rare occurrence when something is massively popular and also an aesthetic, intellectual triumph… CBS produces a number of very good dramas. So does Fox. Almost every network has a drama to be proud of, artistically. But as a commercial venture, broadcast television isn’t really worried about its shows winning acclaim. It’s more important to win the time slot. To win the demo battle. Everybody in the business understands this. So they shouldn’t be so upset that the drama Renaissance they helped usher into the broadcast world somehow falls short of the artistic triumphs on cable. You do good work. Let it go.

Enter VanDerWerff, who today published an essay that makes the counter, and maybe counterintuitive, argument: that cable is losing its primacy as the place for quality TV. Cable has been the place for stunning, challenging series, he argues, since the late ’90s dawn of The Sopranos, but lately it’s either lowered its ambitions or fallen into its own formulas. For every HBO or AMC or FX, there’s a USA or Lifetime or TNT churning out unmemorable laundry-folders like Covert Affairs.

And even the high-class networks, he says, are not as path-breaking as they once were, perhaps victims of their own success: The Walking Dead, he says, is a huge hit but no Mad Men artistically, and Boardwalk Empire was a very good drama but exactly what you’d expect from an HBO period drama. His verdict:

Cable has been terrible at developing new, great series. HBO has a lot of young shows that are vaguely enjoyable—like Hung or How To Make It In America—but no one would claim they were rewriting the rules. And while FX has a fleet of young, great shows (including Justified, Archer, and Louie, which are all either just done with their second seasons or about to start them), it couldn’t launch any new shows this season to save its life, including Terriers, the best new show of the year, and the show that was meant to tug the network more in the direction of the popular USA and TNT, with cases of the week and appealingly goofy characters. AMC, meanwhile, has been unable to launch a great show since Breaking Bad, confusing the trappings of a good cable show—moody filming, antiheroes, understated acting—with the meat beneath the surface.

Both essays are thoughtful, well-informed and rooted in valid, very strong ideas about where TV is going and why. They also—the better to generate discussion—have blind spots and enough cherry picking to make at least a small pie. Goodman, at the end of his piece, notes in passing that the broadcast networks have done a much better job with creative, ambitious comedies (Community, Parks and Recreation, How I Met Your Mother, &c.) but leaves that for another day.

And from as best as I can read VanDerWerff’s, he seems to stack the deck for the networks by comparing the last four or five years of their shows with, roughly, the last season of cable’s. (Fringe, which debuted in 2008, is an example of the upswing in broadcast quality; Breaking Bad, which debuted in 2008, is considered an old show and thus an example that cable drama’s prime is behind it.) For all his praise of the creative upswing on the networks, he cites a total of two actual broadcast shows that debuted in the past season: Bob’s Burgers and the “B level” (his words) Raising Hope.

At the core of both pieces, though, are the same understandings of why TV is how it is. Goodman rightly notes that much of broadcast TV still operates on the model of the Big-Three-network era: that is, you put on least-objectionable-programming, shows that are designed to make as few people as possible want to change the channel, which is not a recipe for greatness.

And VanDerWerff rightly notes that, as cable networks start to draw audiences closer to broadcasts’, more of them have incentive to make shows on that same model. The trend, is toward shows that fit a known formula and draw an audience. (Conversely, smaller audiences may mean the broadcast networks design more shows on cable-like premises, such as NBC’s upcoming The Playboy Club–but watch that pilot next to Mad Men next fall and tell me there’s no difference between broadcast and cable.)

But bottom line, who’s making better shows, broadcast or cable? Come on. There’s a gordian-knot solution: list the best shows on TV, and count up who made more of them. By my measure, it’s still easily cable—from my last few year-end best-of lists, it’s not even a contest. I like some broadcast shows, but in general, cable’s best is better than broadcast’s best. (VanDerWerff says, for instance, that Boardwalk Empire was “liked but not loved,” not a groundbreaker like The Sopranos. Totally right. Yet it was still far better than anything a broadcast network launched last fall, Lonestar included.) If you hold them to the same standard, no grading on a curve for difficulty or business requirements, cable wins. And from what I’ve seen so far this year, I don’t see that changing much.

Still, don’t take my word for it—look at Goodman and VanDerWerff’s own lists. The AV Club (which VanDerWerff edits) picked 25 top series for 2010; 15.5 on cable and 9.5 on broadcast. (I am divvying up FNL, Solomonically, between the two groups.) Goodman picked 20 (counting ties), 16 on cable and 4 on broadcast.

The interesting question is the point Goodman and VanDerWerff silently agree on: that broadcast networks are doing much better with comedies creatively than with dramas. (Not that cable channels, especially FX and Cartoon Network, are slouching here.) I have no answer, only guesses.

For starters, sitcoms still give big networks more leeway for experimentation with form and subject–community college, city government, show choir–than the cops-and-lawyers staples of hit dramas. Second, even most “critical favorite” comedies are inherently populist, because you still have to make people laugh, whereas as many dramas get into the honest dark hearts of their characters—see Breaking Bad—they’re almost inherently going to turn off a swath of people who just don’t want to unwind with that in an evening.* Finally—maybe most important—with the exception of Modern Family and maybe Glee, the comedies that our essayists would put among broadcast’s big creative successes have audiences closer to the size of cable (Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock).

*(You’ll note I didn’t cite cable’s freedom to swear and show boobs, because I don’t think it’s important. The West Wing and Lost managed fine within network standards. The obstacle to broadcast TV making something like The Wire is not content but complexity.)

Maybe the biggest question, though, is: does “broadcast vs. cable” mean anything anymore? It may be at once needlessly compartmentalizing and not compartmentalizing enough. On the one hand, between DVRs, DVDs and online streaming, the audience of people who know or care if a show is on broadcast or cable is shrinking. On the other hand, there is so much high-profile cable programming compared to a decade ago, that “cable” itself should probably now be subdivided: there are big differences between subscription channels (HBO, Showtime), channels seeking a “quality TV audience” (FX, AMC), basic-cable giants (USA, TNT) and reality-heavy channels like Bravo. The business model distinction still affects what kind of shows get made where, but it arguably matters less.

In summation: there is a lot of good TV. There is a lot of bad TV. Because there is a lot of TV. Now can we go back to arguing whether TV series are better than movies?