If we’re going to skewer TV critics who get it wrong, we should give them credit when they get it right. USA Today’s Robert Bianco got it right. Royal Pains, Burn Notice and The Closer are not shows that broadcast networks covet. And he didn’t even get into the the 18-49 numbers. I’m not sure how cheap Mad Men really is to make, but generally concur with Bianco here, and the bit about how it would’ve gone if Lost was on USA was funny.
And the broadcast networks did try a few scripted shows of their own; they just tended to attract too small an audience for broadcast purposes.
And that’s the cloud in TV’s otherwise bright summer sky. As fine as many of these shows were, the highest rated —Pains, The Closer and Notice —still only averaged around 7 million viewers. And while that may be enough viewers for USA and TNT, it’s not nearly enough to support a full fall slate on broadcast TV.
So why do the numbers work for cable? It certainly helps that the basic cable networks (HBO and Showtime are in their own world) get money from subscribers as well as advertisers, but it helps even more that they spend less of it. They fill fewer time slots with fewer episodes of fewer series, which they repeat incessantly. They hire fewer actors and writers, and pay them less on average than the network norm.
It’s amazing how much bang some of these series get for fewer bucks (notably Mad Men and Rescue Me). But more often, the cost cutting can be spotted on air, in the form of smaller ensembles, fewer speaking parts, longer scenes (to cut down on setup costs), and an overall tinny, bedraggled look. If Lost had been made for USA, it would have been about three people whose helicopter crashed on Catalina.
It was a great summer, with much to enjoy. But let’s just hope those summer numbers and summer economics don’t carry over into fall, because that could lead to a TV future that looks much less sunny.