I hear people discuss the “Golden Age of TV” in referring to TV of the past. They refer to shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and M*A*S*H, all great shows to be sure. But they came at a time when shows like that were few and far between.
In these days of hundreds of channels, TV viewers are not restricted to NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX, to find good quality TV Drama. I argue that TODAY is the TV’s Golden Age. With basic cable channels such as FX, AMC, TNT, A&E, and USA, to name a few, the choices have never been more plentiful. The same goes for high-quality dramas. 25 years ago, you may have had 2 or 3 excellent dramas on the air in any particular TV season. Now it’s not uncommon to have that many on in a given week or maybe even a given night. Don’t get me wrong, broadcast television does offer some quality programming. In fact I would say that when it comes to comedies, the broadcast networks do it better. But cable TV is the place to go for drama.
Shows like The Shield, Breaking Bad, Rescue Me, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The Americans, Damages, Southland, The Wire, Homeland, Game of Thrones, and The Sopranos all have a couple of things in common. All of them are critically acclaimed, award-winning, highly respected programs, and all of these shows aired or still air on a cable network. The list of these cable dramas goes on and on.
But why does cable offer much better original drama than network TV does in this era? There are several reasons. Cable offers less restrictions than broadcast networks do. Cable allows for more sophisticated and intricate storylines with decidedly adult themes and language. Cable offers you the feel of watching the quality of a big screen film with every episode. Groundbreaking shows like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, or The Walking Dead would never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for cable TV.
Cable drama series also have seasons of much shorter length. Whereas a broadcast network drama show such as NCIS produces anywhere from 20-24 episodes a season, cable shows only produce 10-13. That means less “filler” episodes, episodes that do not really push the story forward but are there merely to fill a quota because the storyline isn’t enough to stretch an entire season. Cable TV seasons run 3-4 months. This means that reruns are basically non-existent, and every episode is important. CBS needs to stretch 24 episodes of NCIS over an 8 month period since the broadcast networks seasons start in September or October and run until May. That leaves plenty of time for reruns.
My guess is that you will see the major broadcast networks start following cables lead and give shows 13 episode seasons instead. This will give them the flexibility of adding more original programming, and more quality writing for each drama series. Overall, cable drama series provide a much more enjoyable, and satisfying experience for the discernable TV viewer than broadcast networks offer.
With the viewing choices growing every day, the broadcast networks will need to step up their game in order to compete for our time and attention, and TV will be better for it.