What the Emmys revealed about the broadcast vs. cable war raging on TV

A night of thinly veiled hostilities showed just how wide the chasm is between network and prestige television

Published August 27, 2014 2:30PM (EDT)

Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife," Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad"      (CBS/AMC)
Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife," Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" (CBS/AMC)

As the four broadcast networks prepare to debut their fall slates of new programming, they put on a show at the Emmys that made the case for their own right to exist, stridently.

Shut out of the best drama race, the Emmys honored ABC comedy series “Modern Family” as the best for a fifth consecutive year; Netflix was ignored so blatantly that it took to Twitter to respond; CBS comedy stars Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Allison Janney (“Mom”) as well as drama actress Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”) picked up prizes, too. Margulies took the opportunity to expand on the theme that “The Good Wife’s" P.R. team had put forward in ads in Hollywood trade papers when they presented a graph  indicating how many more episodes “The Good Wife” produced than the likes of “True Detective.” Margulies specifically mentioned her series’ “22 episodes a year," an obvious obstacle to producing the kind of crystalline, carefully considered storytelling labored over on the likes of “True Detective.” There’s a “paywall” on cable TV for a reason -- viewers are paying not necessarily for quality but for shows exempt from the requirements imposed by the four broadcast networks.

And don’t think the broadcast crew doesn’t know it. Host Seth Meyers’ jokes about HBO’s humble origins as a dispensary of cheesy movies turns sour when you consider that his own network, NBC, is largely being kept afloat by NFL football and “The Voice,” whose new judge Gwen Stefani revealed on the Emmy broadcast she doesn’t know who Stephen Colbert is. Presenter Jimmy Kimmel, of ABC, went after HBO “True Detective” star (and recent Oscar winner) Matthew McConaughey for being too attractive for TV.

Critics have reacted to the tone of the Emmys strangely: There’s been an outpouring of annoyance over “Modern Family” tying the all-time record for most best comedy wins, as though the prize generally went to a boundary-busting work of high art as opposed to a solidly made product. (The record “Modern Family” tied belongs not to the spiky “Seinfeld” or any premium cable series but to “Frasier,” a series whose sheer competence and strong bones have destined it to good-but-not-memorable status among comedies of the 1990s.) And, in the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley, for reasons only known to her, made the unusual decision to frame the Emmys as literal class warfare. Citing Occupy Wall Street doctrine of the 1 percent versus the 99, Stanley noted that best drama winner “Breaking Bad,” which aired on AMC, “penalize[d] audiences with costs that add up and count many viewers out.”

Fair enough, perhaps. But “Breaking Bad” is part of the basic-cable package that competes with broadcast TV and that has, as Stanley ruefully notes elsewhere in her piece, eroded broadcast ratings from the heights they enjoyed during the era of “Roots.” It also built popularity year-over-year, no doubt due to the fact that viewers caught up on Netflix, another service that cuts into broadcast popularity. Stanley’s framing -- that angry viewers are befuddled by an Emmy Awards that honors shows they cannot possibly access -- is undercut by the facts that the Emmys, almost wherever they were able, did honor broadcast series, and that the viewers made “Breaking Bad” a hit that the networks could only envy, as they could never have aired it due to the very explicit content that helped make it so great.

The qualitative differences between the average cable drama in 2014 and the average of network drama are immense. They’re setting out to do wildly different things. (The difference between network comedies and cable ones, leaving aside the cases of dramedies like “Orange Is the New Black,” is substantial but less vast by far. Funny is funny.) The last drama on one of the four networks to have been nominated was “The Good Wife” three years ago -- and that’s OK for everyone but the networks’ self-conscious stars, it seems.

The great network success story of the 2013-14 season was NBC, which under the actually visionary leadership of Robert Greenblatt, has ceded the hope of genre-busting dramas to a lineup of crime procedurals, sports and singing competitions. The four broadcast networks aren’t getting snubbed in the best drama field. They’re choosing not to compete. And viewers interested in the prestige-y side of TV will find it elsewhere on their dial, even if they don’t subscribe to HBO. For dollars a month, for instance, viewers can catch up on “Mad Men”; they can watch the final episodes next year on basic cable.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Alessandra Stanley Netflix Television