Mad Men comes back for its sixth season Sunday at an opportune moment for basic cable. Last weekend, 25 million viewers combined watched The Bible and The Walking Dead on basic cable channels. That's more than triple the audience for The Good Wife on CBS that same night.
So are we looking at a convergence between scripted shows on broadcast and cable? It's hard not to wonder, when you see broadcast networks rushing to replicate gruesome death scenes like the ones relished by The Walking Dead's enviably sizable audience. (See The Following on Fox or Hannibal on NBC for examples. Or, depending on your tolerance for gore, don't.)
"Imitation is the sincerest form of television," jokes TV critic Eric Deggans. He points out that until fairly recently, cable barely registered in the ratings. One of the leaders was actually a channel for older women. It became known — or perhaps infamous — for its original content.
"Lifetime was the most-watched cable network for a period of 18 months in 2000 and 2001," points out media scholar Amanda Lotz. "They had this very clear brand. At that time, Lifetime was TV for women, with original scripted shows for female leads when they weren't on broadcast networks."
But no one would have used the word convergence back then. Lifetime shows looked cheap and stamped-out. Cable channels lacked big broadcast budgets, so they had to fill vast tracts of airtime with reruns of broadcast shows. And that, says Lotz, doesn't necessarily establish a basic-cable brand.
"And the thing about [an] original scripted program is they can make it match their brand exactly," she observes.
That's why it worked for the comedy-oriented TBS to pick up the broadcast show Cougar Town when ABC dropped it last year. Edgy FX is enjoying broadcast-level ratings for its original scripted shows, such as American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy.
Basic-cable shows started to look more expensive back in 2002, with the launch of USA's Monk and FX's The Shield, according to the latter network's president, John Landgraf. Since then, he has seen a remarkable jump in the sheer volume of scripted shows.
"When The Shield launched, there were about 30 scripted original series in basic and premium cable," he says. "There were 125 last year. And I think there'll be well over that this year. Could be 140 or 150."
Still, Landgraf isn't quite making a case for convergence between scripted shows on cable and broadcast — not yet, anyway. On broadcast shows, he points out, consequences for wrongdoing are dealt out instantaneously.
"So you always see crime doesn't pay and bad people get punished and cops generally win," he says. But cable shows like The Shield and The Sopranos are more like Shakespearean tragedies.
"Macbeth doesn't get his comeuppance until the fifth act," Landgraf notes.
Maybe that's when we'll know when we've reached true convergence — when we're watching Macbeth: The Series on Fox or ABC.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On this Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Well, "Mad Men" is back; the signature cable drama returns on Sunday. This seems to be a great time for shows on cable. Last Sunday, 25 million viewers combined, tuned into basic cable shows "The Bible" and "The Walking Dead" - blowing away the biggest scripted show on broadcast TV, "The Good Wife."
This all got us wondering if we're seeing a convergence, of sorts, between broadcast and cable. NPR's Neda Ulaby looked into this, and encountered some pretty gruesome storylines.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Ratings are easy to measure. Last year, 40 percent of the top-rated shows in key demographics were cable. Only a decade or so ago, it was more like 4. But it seems like a qualitative convergence is happening, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No!
ULABY: When a bloody zombie cable show like "The Walking Dead" gets historically high ratings, that's deadly serious for the broadcast networks. So they're trying to be just as disgusting with new serial killer shows like "Hannibal" on NBC and "The Following" on Fox.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FOLLOWING")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Kill her!
ULABY: When it comes to this kind of thing, television critic Eric Deggans has coined a phrase. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The phrase "imitation is the sincerest form of television" was not coined by Deggans, but by comedian Fred Allen.]
ERIC DEGGANS: Imitation is the sincerest form of television - anything that works on TV is going to be cloned.
ULABY: Let's return, for a moment, to a simpler era, when hit shows drew more than 20 million people and the battle for ratings was waged between only four major broadcast networks.
DEGGANS: For a long, long time, the networks had the home field advantage in that people's TV dials, and their TV watching habits, were all kind of oriented around broadcast television. And then when cable channels sort of came along, they were these exotic, extra things.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Will she hurt my baby?
ULABY: Things like a channel designed for older women, says media studies professor Amanda Lotz, that for a while was a leader.
AMANDA LOTZ: Lifetime was the most watched cable network for a period of 18 months in 2000, 2001. And I think a lot of that had to do with that they had this very clear brand. At that time, Lifetime was television for women. They were creating original, scripted shows with female leads, when they weren't on broadcast networks.
ULABY: But no one would have used the word "convergence" back then. Lifetime shows looked cheap and stamped out. Cable channels lacked big broadcast budgets, so they had to fill vast tracts of their schedules with reruns of broadcast shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LAW AND ORDER" THEME MUSIC)
ULABY: Do you remember when it felt like a "Law and Order" was on every time you turned on cable?
LOTZ: The problem with that is that inevitably, that doesn't fit your brand, exactly, because it wasn't created for you.
ULABY: Lotz says cable channels gradually realized there was promotional value involved.
LOTZ: And the thing about scripted programming, or the original scripted programming, is that they can make it match that their brand exactly.
ULABY: So the cable channel TBS is comedy. That's why it picked up a broadcast show, "Cougar Town," when ABC dropped it last year. Now it's producing original episodes. FX is edgy. It's getting broadcast-level ratings for its original scripted shows, like "American Horror Story," or the one about a not-particularly-law-abiding motorcycle gang.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SONS OF ANARCHY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Sons of Anarchy is a motorcycle club. And just for your information, I haven't been charged with a crime - gun-related or otherwise - in over seven years.
ULABY: According to FX president John Landgraf, basic cable shows started to look more expensive with the launch of his network's show "The Shield," and "Monk" on USA, back in 2002. Since then, he's seen a remarkable jump in the sheer volume of scripted shows.
JOHN LANDGRAF: When "The Shield" launched, there were about 30 scripted original series in basic and premium cable. There were 125 last year. And I think they'll be - well over that this year; could be 140, could be 150.
ULABY: Still, Landgraf is not seeing complete convergence - not yet - between scripted shows on cable, and the ones on broadcast.
LANDGRAF: What broadcast shows have done is, you always have to see the consequences instantaneously - right? It has to happen within the hour, or very shortly; so you have to always see, essentially, that crime doesn't pay and bad people get punished, and cops generally win. You know, what these shows like "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" - they're more like Shakespearean tragedies. You know, Macbeth doesn't get his comeuppance until the fifth act.
ULABY: Maybe that's how we'll know convergence has really arrived, when we're watching "Macbeth," the series, on Fox or ABC.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.