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Top TV Stories of 2008: The rise of the cable networks

by Jason Hughes, posted Jan 2nd 2009 10:00AM
Burn Notice
Everybody's been boo-hooing the ongoing decline in the ratings of the broadcast networks for years now. Each year their numbers erode and the news outlets go crazy trying to figure out what's going on. But there's been a quieter story building during that same timespan, and it really came to the forefront this year. While the major broadcast networks have seen a drop in viewers, the cable networks have been busting ratings records all year, culminating with USA not only having the best year of any cable channel in 2008, but having the best year in the history of cable television.

But what does that mean for television, in general? Is it just the continuing evolution of a drastically changing medium? Considering the state of the economy and its impact on the networks, it's definitely worth noting that someone on the airwaves is apparently doing something right, and it's these cable channels. Ironically, many of those same success stories in cable are sister stations to the broadcast networks, even going so far as to lend them shows during that pesky writer's strike. But how can it be that while the Big Four are going down, the cable networks are on the rise?

WGA Strike
One of the things that helped the cable networks, surprisingly, was the WGA strike. While the strike crippled the broadcast networks, and many are still struggling to recover, not so was the impact felt by their cable brethren. At the beginning of 2008, with the strike in full effect for another month, the Big Four limped their way into the new year with bad reality shows and lots of reruns. When the strike finally ended in February, it was still a few months before they could bring back anything original to the air, and then, they oddly chose those shows that seem to do well enough in reruns already, like the CSI franchise.

Meanwhile, in the land of pay television, it was business as usual. Due to long lead times for the channels, as well as a general summer rollout for their scripted programs, most of these shows weren't impacted at all. Which means while the rest of us were getting sick of the schlock on the broadcast networks with no end in sight, we could flip over to AMC for Breaking Bad (yes I know it was cut short by the strike, but damn it was good!) or USA for new episodes of Psych and Burn Notice or The Closer and Saving Grace on TNT.

Quality
Also arguable is the quality of those shows. While the broadcast networks are subject to heavy FCC scrutiny (especially post-Janet Jackson nipplegate) and the whims of their advertisers who, after all, pay pretty much for everything, the pay channels have a comfortable income coming from people just paying for the privilege of having the option to watch them. They also generally have a comfort level of an entire season commitment, even if it is only 10 or 12 episodes. This allows them to write more involved story arcs, thus creating a more in-depth viewing experience for the audience. And that audience is 100% confident that they'll get to see the entire story play out. Definitely not so on the trigger-happy broadcast airwaves.

Also, with bigger ratings on the cable networks, that means bigger budgets and commitments to original programming. There was a time when you could tell an original cable program just by looking at it. From a grainy film quality to sets that looked like they were swiped from a local high school, you felt like you were watching the local public broadcast network. Now there's virtually no visual difference between them. Even if we're not talking the big budget quality of your HBO or Showtime programs, you have smaller budget beauties like the aforementioned Breaking Bad or Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica.

Digital Broadcast Conversion
With the switch-over to digital broadcast looming, 2008 was the year where people had to figure out how they were going to handle this. While many probably did opt for just grabbing that digital converter antenna, I would imagine that several more just went ahead and sprung for cable or satellite. As soon as they did, a myriad of channel options were opened up to them, and you just know they went exploring.

Along with that, you have those generations of people coming up now for whom cable has always been there. For many of us, there was a time when the broadcast networks were the be-all and end-all of television. Then when cable came, it was a bunch of niche channels and boutique networks, but still broadcast was where it was at. Now, with original programming all across the dial, this isn't so much the case. And kids today have always had hundreds of channels to choose from, so they don't have the psychological attachment to ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX (for the younger of us getting-up-there folks) that we do.

Where we still see a difference between these channels and the cable channels, they really don't anymore. Most of them aren't even watching local news on television anymore; they're getting it online. And if they do want news, they can go to Fox News or CNN. I've met younger people who do nothing but watch Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, MTV and movie channels. Beyond that they don't even notice the Big Four.

The Price
As with anything, though, there is a price to pay. That price for the broadcast networks still remains to be seen. Certainly a possible future for them can be seen with NBC's move to put Jay Leno on at 10 pm every night. I would imagine that we'll see a reduction in original programming and a continuing move away from the traditional "season" model we have now.

The price to pay for the cable channels is the homogenization of their brands. In that respect, those former niche channels are becoming more like their broadcast brethren. AMC used to be about classic movies, but now they're moving into original programming and finding better ratings that way. The same for almost every other network out there. Spike TV was at one time The Nashville Network, focusing on the country music lifestyle, but now they're much more diverse. Even Sci Fi has wrestling and reality. Is it a price worth paying to get more of the shows we do like? If The History Channel can still be 75% about history, will we begrudge them a reality dating show? Well, that may be stretching it a bit.

How much longer will there even be a need for the broadcast networks at all, though? Do those local affiliates need that national presence to survive? Or could NBC roll right out of the broadcast world and just become another cable channel? They could have their reduced schedule of original programming and wouldn't be so reliable on having "network size" ratings. Then a show like Heroes could still be considered a huge hit with monster numbers ... for a cable show.

When I was younger, we had the three broadcast channels (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and we had three local channels with no network affiliation. Now they're wrapped up with FOX, The CW and MyNetwork TV. But back then, those channels did just fine. They bought network shows for syndication, had original local programming, and offered a wide variety of viewing choices, even in prime time. They could do that again, only now they'd have the option to buy programming from literally hundreds of cable channels like TNT, USA, The History Channel, and maybe someday ABC or CBS as well.

More Top TV Stories of 2008

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metz

Both cable and broadcast models are dinosaurs. Eventually all programming will be delivered over the internet. There will be no need for broadcast affiliations or even the concept of a "cable" station. Financial models will get flipped on their ears and everything will change to a la carte.

January 05 2009 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andy

I made a list of my top 20 shows currently airing. Only 8 of them were from broadcast networks (and only 4 of the 14 dramas on the list).

Networks still seem to be the place for half-hour comedy (with a few exceptions like South Park and It's Always Sunny), but cable has absolutely swept up my drama viewing.

January 02 2009 at 2:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
a reader writes

Local TV stations will soon have the option to broadcast additional DTV channels when they shut down analog in February--many are doing this already but local cable companies are carrying these channels, if at all, on their more expensive digital tier. If local stations actually used these new over-the-air channels to air off-network and off-cable programming instead of more infomercials, they could potentially entice a lot of cable subscribers to drop cable--especially in this economy when people are looking for ways to cut expenses. But watch, local stations will pass up a big opportunity to really strike a significant blow at cable/satellite, because on a quarter-by-quarter basis, programming is an expense and informercials are income.

January 02 2009 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony

The day of USA overtaking its parent network NBC isn't far off IMO, especially with the way Zucker and Silverman are running it and Leno as the star attraction 5 nights a week.

January 02 2009 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rich

I think the main problem for the broadcast networks can be boiled down to an old saying: "You can please all of the people some of the time. You can please some of the people all of the time. But you can't please all of the people all of the time." The cable network business model doesn't require them to please all of the people all of the time. The broadcast network business model does.

This is not only a problem on its face, but it goes deeper and causes the broadcast networks to create programming with the unattainable goal of pleasing all of the people all of the time, and it results in bland lowest common denominator programming that pleases hardly anyone very much.

This was always a flaw in the broadcast network business model. It's just that, in the old days, people didn't have all these alternatives, so they watched shows they weren't really in love with on the broadcast networks. Now they don't.

January 02 2009 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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