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October 8, 2015

TV 101: What Can the Networks Do to Compete With Cable?

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Apr 6th 2011 3:00PM
Network TVIt's no surprise that television audiences are looking away from the big four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) when they want quality, soul-preserving programming. It used to be that "network" was your only choice, and if you wanted to see Bo Duke in painfully tight denim on 'Dukes of Hazzard' you had to work for it. You had to orchestrate your life around it. That's pretty powerful stuff.

Drunk with power, the networks got complacent at the wrong time, as television soon began to expand quite considerably. The development of basic and premium cable channels offered a myriad of not only diverse and original programming but various delivery methods as well, giving the power back to the audience.

The networks are that crotchety old-timer, constantly ranting about how it was "back in my day," with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, despite the fact that everyone keeps telling him its broke. Stubborn and delusional, they're still surviving based on the simple TV conventions of yore, and using reality shows to be able to say, "See? We're adapting!"

Toddlers and TiarasCable TV (FX, IFC, Starz, Bravo, HBO, Showtime, Adult Swim) is the young upstart, ready to try anything at least once -- even 'Toddlers & Tiaras' -- in an attempt to change the game, egging the Network house and making fart noises while walking behind them at the mall. Cable just seems to be working harder to push the limits of what television can do, while the networks are working harder to maintain the status quo. But what can they do to change that ... assuming they want to in the first place? Here are some admittedly idealistic suggestions.

Less -- much less -- reality programming. I'm constantly talking to people about the "reality movement" and when, if ever, is it going to end. My answer is generally twofold. The networks are the chicken, continuing to air the shows, and we are the egg, lapping them up. It's impossible to place blame on either, but both have the power to stop it. Fewer reality shows might upset people at first, but it would change the culture of network television, and eventually individual tastes would adapt and evolve.

This is not to say that reality programming is all bad and is giving us all diseases -- those studies are still ongoing -- but take a look at what cable has done with reality programming and how it's much different than what you're getting on the networks. Cable reality is, for lack of a better term, more "real" (VH1 notwithstanding). Rather than putting real people into contrived situations ('The Bachelor,' 'The Apprentice,' 'American Idol,' 'The Biggest Loser,' 'Dancing With the Stars') for the sake of entertainment, a great deal of reality programming on cable tries to stay as real as possible, giving a glimpse into a cross-section of our society that we might not know about ('Gold Rush Alaska, 'Intervention,' 'Hoarders,' and all the shows about various cakes).

Having said that, the networks could use more shows about cake, and desserts in general, like ice cream or fudge. Cable has been a pioneer in cake-based television, and it's time for networks to stop stealing shows from overseas and start looking at home to steal our own sugary recipe for ratings success. Cake makes everyone happy.

The SopranosThe networks also need to get up to speed Standards and Practices-wise. I know this is not necessarily something they have much control over, but a lot of cable's success can be linked to what we are allowed and trusted to see. HBO, Showtime, and countless other cable channels have proven time and again that language and content can be pushed to tasteful and more authentic degrees. No one would argue that 'The Sopranos' of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' are bad television. When content isn't manipulated gratuitously, but rather to a point, it can be edifying if not enlightening.

We're back to changing the culture of network television, and not assuming that audiences aren't ready for any accurate depiction of their culture to be thrown back at them. Networks pander, assuming that their audience won't get it, while cable challenges its audience to get it -- or at least be involved in the process.

It's sort of like the old "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Networks got used to trying to make every single viewer happy, offending no one. That's a difficult habit to break, but it breeds homogenization and discourages the unique. Quality suffers with the more people you try to please. Trying to make everyone happy makes for a watered-down product.

To that end, maybe the networks need to reduce the scope of their audience, and make their initiative less about making money and more about not just pushing envelopes, but violently shoving them, full of fresh progressive ideas in the faces of viewers, exclaiming, "Here! Look at this! It's awesome, if you would just take a second to think about it and stop whining that 'According to Jim' is off the air."

If none of these suggestions work, or are even plausible, they could always just resort to softcore porn. It's one of the few things that I would watch D-list celebrities do on television, and if they could possibly get cake involved, that would be ideal. Cinemax has built an empire out of lubricated grinding, and sex is right up there with violence and language in areas that are underdeveloped on network television, relative to cable.

If television is a freight train careening forward at breakneck speed, cable is the engineer and networks are running alongside, complaining that cable won't slow down a little so it can catch its breath and maybe eat the egg salad sandwich its mom made. Networks need to get on board by any means necessary, before the entire train passes them by.

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/Media/Humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he's a Leo. You can also check out his blog or find him on Facebook.

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The broadcast networks have two problems that cable networks don't. Cable networks sell advertising and receive a monthly fee per subscriber; broadcast networks sell advertising but the affiliate channels receive the cable retransmission fees. The broadcast networks are subject to FCC content regulation and the complaints of every pressure group that starts a letter writing campaign about shows their members may never have seen; the cable networks set their own content standards.

April 06 2011 at 11:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Han Solo

The way the cable channels are all loosing their unique programming might be just the opening the networks need.

Syfy, History, TLC etc are all nothing but the same stuff now days.

It's just a matter of time before we see reruns of Rosanne and Home Improvement on the Food Network at the rate they are going.

A return to some truly independent and niche programming might be a way to compete.

These days I find better stuff on broadcast PBS and our local ION Life channels over the air than HGTV, Food, and TLC combined.

And our local over the air RetroTV channel is 100x better than any other classic tv channel on cable. And combine that with the other two classic tv and movie channels that are also free over the air and there is little need for cable.

These new digital channels open up a ton more possibilities for programming without needing additional broadcast towers and transmitters. They can just startup an additional sub channel for little costs now.

April 06 2011 at 10:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My issue is that whether your Broadcast or Basic Cable, does it really matter what you do when the sacred Nielsen Box (family) does ALL the choosing for ALL of us? I don't know when this race to the bottom programming will wear itself out with these people but until we stop having this subsection of the country making the decisions, I don't see much changing. We are starting to see more and more QUALITY shows dumped after 1 season on cable, and those who lucked out by premiering prior to this onslaught of reality garbage should take their sucess with some humility. I don't really see it as a broadcast vs cable problem and as cable falls further down the rabbit hole to get the ratings (granted they don't need as much as broadcast), I would say it's going to get so bad that they'll be struggling mighty as well. In the meantime, I'm giving up a few extras with what little money I have to have Pay Cable (HBO, Showtime..etc) since that seems the only way I get to decide what programs I want to watch and actually have an opportunity to see a Season 2 of them, at least. Pretty sad state of affairs if you ask me, but who cares what I think anyway, I don't have a Nielsen Box.

April 06 2011 at 8:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's an interesting idea, but the major networks have tried.... Persons Unknown, Lonestar, Kings, Wonderfalls, Firefly, etc.

They are the most watched channels across the country. And, they have to answer not to the critics or the various award groups, but to their advertisers and shareholders. Yes, it is all about the money. And cake shows aren't going to ever attract 7 million viewers that would justify putting them on the majors.

April 06 2011 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emma Bradley

An easy one is TVdevo.com . Install it on a PC (or Mac) and start watching TV.
Easy as it gets.

April 06 2011 at 5:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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