THR quotes Universal TV executive VP Bela Bajaria on this point: “There’s no denying that the sheer volume of cable dramas — including those from Netflix, Amazon and everywhere else — has had an impact on who is available.” That “sheer volume” is pretty breathtaking, according to THR: “There are believed to be more than 150 dramas — among broadcast, cable and digital — in production, leaving many writers and producers locked up or too busy running shows to develop new ones.”
So with all those shows in production, why are so few of them going to NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox? Because they’re yesterday’s news, buddy. “Even the traditional advantage network executives have had in being able to promise financial rewards far greater than their cable cousins has slipped with what some are dubbing the ‘Netflix effect,’ referring to the streaming service’s willingness to shell out big money, straight-to-series orders and limited creative interference — a combination against which ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC often can’t compete.”
Something tells me that while all three of those factors matter, the final one is the most important. Broadcast television is one of the last standing bastions of “old media,” and there’s no question that the suits at the network have got their paws all over the shows — why do you think all of CBS’s dramas not only look and sound the same, but have the same alphabet-soup-and-city-name titles? The idea of “limited creative interference” is an undoubtedly attractive one to creatives who are looking to create interesting and innovative new programming — particularly when the networks’ primary function seems to be dumbing down their shows to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Which outlet would you rather take your show to: the one that airs Breaking Bad and Mad Men, or the one that airs (a couple of times, anyway) focus-grouped misfires like Do No Harm (aka “Dr. Facehands”) and Deception?
The real question worth asking about the network drama shortage is this: does it matter? Hour-long scripted dramas are elaborate, expensive undertakings (particularly when loaded up with pricy movie-star talent) — which is presumably why so many of them are getting yanked from the air when they don’t immediately deliver bang-up ratings. On cable, as The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff noted a couple of months back, high-profile original dramas can function as a loss leader to raise a cable network’s profile: “the big money,” VanDerWerff notes, “is in sitcom reruns and reality shows.” The networks have got enough of the latter to choke the average viewer; they can’t air the former, but they can air pre-rerun sitcoms, and they continue to do those pretty well. (Not Louie well, mind you, but good enough.) But until the broadcast networks are willing to offer the kind of freedom and experimentation of their cable and digital counterparts, those open doors THR describes are likely to keep on swinging in the wind.