Tube Talk: A New Reality for Network TV

By Paula Hendrickson
Television Columnist

Notice anything unusual about this year’s Emmy broadcast? No, not the fact that Viola Davis made history when she became the first African American woman to win as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. And no, not because the set resembled a blinged out TARDIS.

Any guesses?

While HBO’s Game of Thrones, Veep and Olive Kitteridge dominated this year’s Emmy Awards, only four of the night’s statuettes went to broadcast networks.

Four.

That’s also the same number of Emmys that Comedy Central picked up this year.

NBC’s The Voice won Outstanding Reality Competition Series; Allison Janney won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role on CBS’ Mom; Regina King won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie for her role on American Crime; and of course Davis’ win for her breakthrough performance on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder.

What does this mean for broadcast networks? If they want to regain credibility and critical acclaim they’re going to have to rethink their entire approach to programming – and to their audiences.

Something most of this years’ scripted winners have in common – including the three network examples above – is they don’t gloss over difficult subjects or allow characters to be unlikable at times.

Social media exploded during each new episode of How To Get Away With Murder thanks to big revelations, most of them involving less-than-flattering aspects of Davis’ character, Annalise Keating. (Truth be told the headline-making scene where Annalise removed her wig and make-up was one of the few reveals that made Annalise more likable, or at least more relatable, since it showed she could be vulnerable, too.)

On American Crime – a drama with what must be one of the most realistic, unflinching and thought-provoking looks at racism, religion, and prejudice to ever air on broadcast television – King plays a devout Muslim woman whose brother is suspected of murder. Her character faces prejudice about her religion, her race, and her gender. Nothing about her role, or the story as a whole, is easy, or one-dimensional.

Even a comedy like Mom isn’t afraid to explore the deeper issues behind the characters’ flaws. Janney’s “Bonnie” isn’t just a wacky self-absorbed mom/recovering addict trying to atone for past mistakes, she’s also a troubled human being fighting to maintain her sobriety. That’s pretty serious subject matter for a sitcom.

Maybe the dearth of Emmy wins this year will finally show broadcast networks that they don’t need to water down content or dumb down subject matter to make it more palatable to the average viewer. In fact, it’s a bit insulting to think some programming executives might really believe the vast majority of Americans are incapable of understanding (or enjoying) more complex stories.

That said, programming is just part of what networks need to address in order to remain relevant in today’s television landscape.

I remember interviewing a programming director at one of the networks about 15 years ago. When I asked him about the “cluttered television landscape,” he didn’t seem too worried about losing viewers to cable, saying viewers had to work too hard to find cable shows. He failed to realize that finding one program amid hundreds of channels isn’t difficult for people who’d been raised with cable, or that they didn’t really draw a distinction between broadcast and cable. They just wanted good programming.

But 15 years ago, broadcast networks’ only real competition came from pay cable, first in the form of made-for-TV movies, then with original premium cable series. A few years later basic cable channels began experimenting with original series and soon viewers were seeking out shows like The Shield on FX, The Closer on TNT, and eventually Mad Men and Breaking Bad on AMC. Those shows helped build the brands we still associate with those channels.

It the past three years, streaming outlets like have given audiences yet another alternative to broadcast television. Broadcasters have already discovered viewers will seek out quality programming, even if it means subscribing to Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Netflix. Now they need to find a way to contend with another level of competition.

The past couple years, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and House of Cards did well at the Emmys. This year Netflix programs only received four Emmys, including Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama for Orange is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba. Despite that dip, Netflix took home as many awards as all of the broadcast networks combined.

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