On Sept. 22, the eve of the launch of many commercial broadcast network shows, the very idea of television could officially change forever.
If, at the Emmy Awards that night, Netflix’s House of Cards or Arrested Development wins one or more of the major awards for which each is nominated, it will be a breakthrough for made-for-online television programming and an acknowledgment that viewers are either shifting their allegiance from broadcast, cable and satellite — or at the very least adding another option to their mix.
This should mean nothing to those viewers who have held fast to their rooftop antennas or their basic cable line, or who insist that the only way to collect their favorite shows is on DVD. (And, yes, there are still some VHS diehards out there.) Only it does, because each time programs shift to a new delivery system, they leave behind people watching only the old. At the same time, for those who have enthusiastically embraced newer media, this is meaningful because it makes certain that more compelling programs will be found outside the old systems.
At the same time for the people who make TV, the latest Emmy presentation is as big a moment as the awards telecast of 1988, the first in which cable programs were allowed to compete against broadcast for Emmys. As former Clevelander Tom O’Neil’s book The Emmys noted, cable shows that first year had 15 nominations total — fewer than either American Horror Story: Asylum or Game of Thrones has this year. Five years later, HBO alone won 17 Emmys, more than any single broadcast network, and dominated the TV-movie category. On that night, at least, Emmy voters said it’s HBO and it’s TV.
But now you hear more and more talk about cutting the cable in favor of other forms of TV transmission, especially online. And broadcasters and cable outlets keep adding new ways of delivering their shows, including by phone apps. So the possibility of a big Netflix night will just further validate the latest shift in viewing habits. And it will come as the traditional commercial broadcast networks are unveiling their latest batch of new and returning shows.
To be sure, the networks continued in many ways to program to an audience that believes in the fall-to-spring TV season, that pays little attention to what’s on before Labor Day, and that wants new episodes on the set as the snow piles up outside in mid-winter. But they are a decreasing portion of an audience that also includes people who closely follow summer-only shows, or who resign themselves to 13-episode seasonal runs split into two parts by cable entrepreneurs, or who wait for something to land on Amazon. com or Netflix or Hulu in order to binge-view whole seasons in a day or two.
And, because of that other audience, networks are ever more willing to think about new ways to schedule and present programs. Some new shows already have their first episodes available online, for example.
Look at CBS, both the most successful of the broadcast networks and long the most tradition-minded scheduler, offering most of its premieres over a week in late September. Even it has embraced new models, for example by putting a scripted first-run series, Under the Dome, on during the summer — and hitting big with audiences in the process. It is also going for the shorter run of episodes in select cases; Hostages, a new drama starring Toni Colette, has already been announced as ending its first season in January when another new show, Intelligence, will take its time slot.
Drawing an audience
Yet, as I end up saying every year, the key to any network’s success is less about scheduling than putting on shows that viewers want to see. And that can still mean looking for compelling stars, appealing storylines, recognizable program brands and ideas that will resonate with viewers. CBS’ idea last season to fill Friday nights with three shows in New York City — Made in Jersey; CSI: NY; and Blue Bloods — proved pointless when almost no one wanted to watch Made in Jersey and CSI:NY wore out its welcome. (Blue Bloods will be back this fall, but in a less geographic lineup with Undercover Boss and Hawaii Five-O.)
So where have the networks put their faith? Ideas from other media and from TV’s past are being put to use. The most anticipated new series has to be Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, an extension of the Marvel comic-book-movie franchise that has included such megahits as The Avengers and Iron Man 3, with Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon involved in the TV series as well. ABC thinks this is the show to pit against the most popular entertainment show in prime time, NCIS.
ABC is also nodding to the movies with Super Fun Night, written by and starring Rebel Wilson, the breakout star of Pitch Perfect, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales with Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. And Fox has gone back to Washington Irving for its Sleepy Hollow. (More about that can be found in today’s issue of Channels.) And NBC is hoping some classic concepts can still work in a new version of Dracula and with an updated Ironside, this time starring Blair Underwood.
Grown-ups — in short, an audience more likely to still be watching regular TV — are central to new shows about parents and their adult children. Those include Fox’s Dads, CBS’ Mom and The Millers and ABC’s Back in the Game. The still-underwhelming economy is reflected in more than one of those shows having the parents and offspring sharing a home; ABC’s Lucky 7, about co-workers buying a winning lottery ticket, also resonates in these tough times.
Networks also still count on star power at times. NBC has five-time Emmy winner Michael J. Fox back in series TV with a show reflecting his real-life dealings with Parkinson’s disease, and James Spader, who has three Emmys, in the thriller The Blacklist. CBS has brought back Robin Williams, with The Crazy Ones, which also features Sarah Michelle Gellar. Fox has looked toward late-night for a star, Andy Samberg, in the already well-reviewed Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which teams him with another TV mainstay, Andre Braugher.
Yes, the guy from Homicide: Life on the Streets and Last Resort. In a comedy. And it works.
Fantasy shows, which seem guaranteed an early audience (not to mention one that will snap up all related merch), are back in force with not only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but also the likes of Fox’s Almost Human and the CW’s The Tomorrow People and The Originals, the latter a spin-off of the network’s Vampire Diaries.
Then there are the decisions that seem purely calculated: If ABC’s viewers will watch Revenge, will they stick around for a show following it called Betrayal? And then there are the shows that on paper are simply baffling. The CW’s latest pitch for teen girls and young women is Reign, the story of a young Mary, Queen of Scots, two suitors and intrigue — which, aside from some period costumes, occupies the same territory as 90210 and Gossip Girl did for the network. I cannot wait to see what the show’s makers decide is the 16th-century version of sexting.
But Reign already has some fans among those who have previewed it, and at least one who has admitted “perverse curiosity” about where this PG variation on Game of Thrones is going. That curiosity may draw enough viewers to meet the CW’s modest ratings expectations. But at least someone cares about the show. And I have my own list of wanna-watch-more shows, among them Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Michael J. Fox Show, We Are Men, Sleepy Hollow and The Crazy Ones.
But last season, my favorite new show was Last Resort, which lasted 13 episodes. And when I’m thinking about what to watch in the weeks ahead, my choices will also include cable shows — and the episodes I have not yet seen of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.