From Four to Ten: A New Lens for Scripted TV
by Aymar Jean Christian — Northwestern University
September 23, 2010 – 00:01
It’s “premiere week” for the Big Four! This is usually an exciting time for TV fans. Television series are blessed with the gloss of the new; hope is in the air!
So it’s telling how HBO’s Sopranos follow-up, Boardwalk Empire, stole the buzz leading up to this week, even as NBC breathlessly promoted their Event. It’s yet another example of how the “big four” have now become at least ten in scripted market, as HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, TNT, even Starz churn out quality primetime TV.
For years conventional wisdom has been telling us broadcasters can’t compete for buzzworthy shows. Usually I’d say that’s simplistic. But looking at my list of must-sees, I’d say the truism rings true. Sure, I’ll watch The Event, with its mysterious marketing, and Undercovers, with its feverish pace and daring “post-racial” duo. Lone Star, Running Wilde, My Generation, Outsourced, $#*! My Dad Says and others will all get my attention for various reasons, but I can hardly say they have me pumped.
If “premiere week” has really lost its fire, the networks can’t shoulder all the blame. Ambitious programming like the decade-defining Lost and 24 or underappreciated Flash Forward and Kings are increasingly rare and risky. As the networks see what’s working on cable – from conventional sitcoms to TNT and USA’s procedurals – my gut feeling tells me they’ll be trying less to impress us and more to just please.
Can we really blame them? Not to overstretch the broadcast vs. cable debate, but primetime premieres have been dogged by competition since the 1990s, as their share of the audience dwindled and as the number of networks producing content rose. They’re not the only players in town.
Today the Big Four churn out hours and hours of primetime programming, but we’ve come to expect quality from a broader range of networks. Year round, we’re entertained by a growing number of players. We get quality from at least ten. The CW guns for the young. USA pleases us all summer. Would-be music channels MTV and BET are ordering scripts with newfound zeal, alongside other niche channels from Lifetime to TVOne.
All this activity puts a damper on premiere week, diluting the excitement, no matter how many times we see promos for The Event. TV has never been better, but premiere week is increasingly less, well, eventful.
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