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basic cable turns the tables
how hbo and nbc lost their grip on good tv
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

Where’s the best TV on TV these days? Used to be, that wasn’t even a question. The answer was self-evident.

First, the self-evident answer was “network”, because original programming was network programming, and HBO was all “Taxicab Confessions” and six-times-a-day repeat viewings of Space Camp.

Then, more recently, the self-evident answer was “HBO,” because they burst out of the gate with some of the most exciting shows in years –- “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Deadwood.”

And now, the answer is “basic cable.”

It’s not a self-evident answer anymore, because things are a little hairier. As the market gets more and more fractured, there are more shows you don’t hear about when they’re happening but you get into later, with DVD sets and iTunes and wacky network-to-cable rerun action like NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” on Bravo or “So You Think You Can Dance” on MTV or “Heroes” on SciFi. So instead of picking a show at the beginning of a traditional fall season, and making it appointment television, you have a lot more options.

Basic cable? All about options.

Now, what I’m talking about here is not the glut of “reality,” or the infinite variety of History Channel specials, all that Bionic Churchill and Pushing Hitler and Dirty Sexy Bismarck. I’m talking about original series, produced for prime-time airing, with fictional characters and plots and the usual trappings of eight-to-eleven viewing, packaged neatly into half-hour or hour-long chunks.

I’m talking about “Nip/Tuck” and “Damages”, “My Boys” and “Mad Men.” “Saving Grace.” “Monk.”

What HBO has done, sadly, is what other pioneers have done before them: blow away the competition… and then withdraw from the field. Used to be they had the finest scripted series, but what with one thing and another (money woes, bad ideas, David Chase), now it’s pretty much just a wasteland occasionally dotted with a decent episode of “Big Love.”

Honestly. Did anyone watch “John From Cincinnati”?

(And if so, are they sorry?)

So here is where that leaves us: show for show, the original programming you’re going to find on basic cable is better than the original programming you’d get from either network or pay cable.

(Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t leave much room to praise “Dexter,” except for me to say that it is such an original and mindblowingly awesome series that if someone forced me to choose between HBO’s scripted series and Showtime’s, I would choose Showtime’s without question, even though I’ve never watched “Weeds”, and “Californication” is perhaps the most unforgivably stupid show I’ve ever seen.)

So why is it? Why is it that in the year 2000, TNT’s first original series, “Bull”, was pulled before it even finished its first season (to no one’s chagrin but mine, evidently), and yet now this type of programming is multiplying so fast and furious that Oscar nominees are heaped up on the doorstep at F/X?

Three things.

1. Edge. Network for many years has been seen as “safe”; it has to be. Standards and practices, and all that. Pay cable is anything-goes; basic cable is somewhat less so -– just watch any recut episode of “Sex and the City” on TBS or “The Sopranos” on A&E to see the difference. But here’s the thing: with no rules at all, one of the ways pay cable tries to differentiate itself is by making the most of that. Which is why HBO has ended up airing “Tell Me You Love Me,” packed with unbelievably graphic sex scenes: because they can.

The thing is, graphic sex and violence don’t make the best shows. Originality and inventiveness make the best shows. That’s the kind of edge you want, and that’s the kind of edge that’s most at home on basic cable. Main characters who are ambiguous or self-destructive or flat-out unlikable. Risky topics. Things that don’t have enough broad-based appeal to capture a winning audience share on network, but definitely make a certain section of the population stand up and applaud. Need an example? It's the difference between NBC's affable dorky spy show "Chuck" and USA's sizzling stylish spy show "Burn Notice."

Does basic cable, like pay cable, sometimes go too far? Sure. They still run the risk of empty edge. (I’m looking at you, “Nip/Tuck.”) But pound for pound, nobody beats HBO on that front.

2. Focus. There just aren’t as many shows; again, when ratings battles are being fought tooth and nail, network execs are quick to pull something from the slate. There is always another show to put in the vacant spot. But on both basic and pay cable, you pretty much have to run out the clock on the season (“Bull” notwithstanding). Because what else will you do with that time? You only have three shows, four shows, five shows. There’s nothing to be gained from yanking a show you’ve already paid to produce. USA's not going to cancel “Psych” so it can start a new season of “The 4400”. Network shows are like carrots: you plant more seeds than necessary because you don't know how many will grow, but once they do grow, you have to pull some out to make room for the others. Basic cable? Zucchini.

3. Ease. This is the flip side of focus, and it’s a good one: the more generous schedule of basic cable makes it easier for viewers to find and latch onto a series. If I were to decide in November that I wanted to start watching “Bionic Woman,” I’d be more or less screwed. (Given that NBC's iTunes replacement system will only let you download the episode for a week after its original air date, I’m not overstating the case by much, assuming illegal downloads aren't an option.) If I miss an episode of “Battlestar Galactica”, I’ll probably catch it on a repeat, or failing that, a marathon, within the next month or so. If I miss an episode of “Monk”? Dude, it’ll be on again in two hours.

Not to mention, it’s easier to be surprised and awed by a basic cable show than the most popular network shows, simply because the media covers shows like “Lost” and “Heroes” and “The Sopranos” so exhaustively. When Boone died on “Lost”, the next day, it was literally front-page news. You couldn't avoid it, even if you wanted to. You're not going to see that kind of coverage for a major plot revelation on, say, “The Closer”.

So if you tend to resort to basic cable solely for “In Her Shoes” reruns on rainy Saturday afternoons, try turning on F/X or USA or AMC (AMC, even!) during primetime.

You might find something original.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 10.4.04

downton, shabby
predicted knockoffs of the latest tv craze
by jael mchenry
topic: television
published: 3.5.12


mike julianelle
10.3.07 @ 8:53a


"The Wire."

jael mchenry
10.3.07 @ 9:20a

The Wire is a wonderful show, very impressive, but it only rewarding to die-hard viewers.

Is it a brilliant show? Almost definitely. Is it brilliant enough to make up for HBO's other disasters? Not for me.

mike julianelle
10.3.07 @ 9:39a

That's fine, but "Deadwood" wasn't the easiest show to jump into either. Just saying you listed a lot of their shows, shows that are gone, and didn't mention it.

Heather and I watched the first half of the first season of Weeds on the plane. Enjoyed it. I really want to se Dexter. DVD time.

jael mchenry
10.3.07 @ 9:54a

Misunderstood which category you thought it belonged in. Yes, it was one of the shows that helped establish HBO's reputation as a kick-ass place for TV.

You'll love Dexter. I did the whole first season by DVD and the second season just started up a couple of days ago. It's not for everyone -- lots of blood -- but the writing, the acting, the characters, they're just incredible.

russ carr
10.3.07 @ 9:58a

I would, nevertheless, watch "Bionic Churchill."

neil feldman
10.3.07 @ 10:42a

My basic cable favorites:
Battlestar Galactica - best show on tv
Psych - unbelievably (intentionally) silly at times, but so much fun
Burn Notice - MacGuyver meets Bourne. Bonus points for Bruce Campbell.

Honorable Mentions:
The 4400 - It's uneven, but overall it is an example of pretty solid sci-fi.
My Boys - It has a lot of flaws, but it is usually a good bit of fluff entertainment that never gets as vapid as almost all of the network sitcoms.

jason gilmore
10.3.07 @ 11:06a

my cable watching has become so insulated

it's pretty much down to ESPNNews, Turner Classic, the Biography Channel and Boomerang (yeah, I watch cartoons, you got a problem?)

and Adult Swim now that Boondocks is finally coming back

HBO hasn't interested me in a long while. I only ordered it so I could see When the Levees Broke and I keep forgetting to call and cancel it.

these are dreary times for TV, so I've used it as an opportunity to step up my DVD collection

brian anderson
10.3.07 @ 12:56p

I once told a friend (who, at the time, was working at HBO) that I wanted HBO for Deadwood, but I didn't want my money going to subsidize Taxicab Confessions. I wonder if, because basic cable doesn't have the captive audience who *has* to pay for the whole thing, they've figured out that they need to have higher average quality.

Jason, I loved the Boondocks comic strips, but the few times I've tried to watch the cartoon, Huey's voice just feels -wrong-. Is it worth persevering?

tracey kelley
10.3.07 @ 4:34p

I loved the Boondocks comics, too, but haven't seen the show. DVR time!

HBO really ruled with the shows you mentioned, Jael, plus "Six Feet Under", which kept us as subscribers for a long time. I know a lot of people liked "Oz" and, as Mike mentioned, "The Wire," too.

But then Showtime pulled up strong with "Dead Like Me" and "Queer as Folk," "Huff" and "The 'L' Word". You really had to decide to either pay a lot for both tiers, or just choose one premium channel.

Marketers across the world should know by now, you don't restrict choice.

While "Weeds" is okay, "Dexter" is really king of Showtime right now. Such an incredible, touchy, well-written, well-acted show.

But, I'm not a subscriber to premium channels anymore...

...because I have Netflix. Whoo!

If I just wait 4-6 months, I can watch an entire season of a premium show in a month. Anticipation builds in a different way.

So yeah, instead of being driven to pay extra, we've taken advantage of basic cable shows like BSG and Saving Grace and Mad Men (truly, truly amazing) and the lovable Monk as our weekly staples, with a little nifty summertime original programming thrown in. What a pleasant change.

robert melos
10.4.07 @ 12:15a

I have a full cable package, mostly because the cable company changed the way they did things and I didn't want to be bothered to pick and choose between gold, diamond and emerald packages so I told them to give me everything and I'd weed it out later. I never did get around to weeding.

Speaking of Weeds, it is a good show. Not great, but entertaining enough to keep me coming back. Californication is okay, but a little unequal. David Duchovny is good, but so full of himself it oozes through the screen.

Shows like Nip/Tuck are fantastic, well written and edgy. I just Netflixed The Book of Daniel, which ran on NBC for 8 episodes. It is one of the best shows I've seen. Well written, acted, just a perfect production. NBC pulled it because it was a bit controversial. Had it been on USA or TBS, or FX or one of those channels I think it would still be on the air. The networks aren't edgy enough, or interesting enough.

I caught tonight's ep of Bionic Woman while at the diner. I didn't see it all because after about 15 minutes of it I was so bored and generally disappointed in how bad it was I asked them to change the channel.

The moment I knew it was too bad to watch was the following dialogue. The scene was a woman with a gun searching a house and barging in on a teenage girl brushing her teeth.

Woman with gun: Freeze! Drop the toothbrush and put you hands up.
Teenage girl: Can I spit?

Me: Waitress, isn't Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader on anymore?


michelle von euw
10.4.07 @ 9:31a

Great column. Another reason to add to your theory: targeted audience. In order for a network show to succeed, it has to appeal to everyone. Because basic cable exists in another universe when it comes to the ratings/success formula, shows on these channels flourish when they appeal to a smaller, specialized pool of viewers. And often provide infinitely more appealing and better produced product, because they aren't trying to please every freakin' American with a Nielsen box.

Battlestar, for instance, isn't for everyone, but is often an example of near-perfection that makes TV geeks like me salivate.

jael mchenry
10.4.07 @ 1:21p

Totally. That was the direction I was trying to go in with the example of "Chuck" vs. "Burn Notice". "Burn Notice", while very funny in its own way, takes its spy stuff seriously. "Chuck" blends it with comedy, and in doing so, goes for the broader audience appeal. I have the feeling that "Burn Notice" would have fizzled out on network because people would think "just another spy show" and it'd get yanked -- like "Smith" last year. Has there been a good network spy show since "Alias"?

The "Battlestar" model is a good one, especially for SciFi. A lot of people don't care for science fiction, but in that case, they can just skip the entire channel. But when you tap into an SF fanbase, man, they are LOYAL like crazy.

I'm curious to see what happens with "Bionic Woman". Will an SF show that most SF fans I know hate resonate well with non-SF fans who tune in for other reasons? Is it really all about Michelle Ryan's breasts? Sad state of affairs if so.

dan gonzalez
10.6.07 @ 12:09a

I very rarely disagree with you, Jael, because I never liked Deadwood but you (a true cocksucker!) but with a much more sophisticated palette, did. And I don't have the chops to recommend that anyone should willingly pay a subscripton fee to get some show that my dumb ass likes.

But there is nothing on basic that is as well written and executed as Weeds. Period. Weeds will jump the shark soon, but for now, it's the most entertaining half-hour on TV in my book.

dan gonzalez
10.6.07 @ 12:15a

One other thing: Julianelle has way better taste than me, but as an Ellroy fan, Dexter is right up his ally.

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