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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are American broadcast TV and quality programming now hopelessly incompatible?

In an article in The Gazette (of Montreal) entitled “Why the best TV isn’t found on the big networks,” Alex Strachan discusses the fallout from the Golden Globes, where cable series (as opposed to those that air on the major broadcast networks) dominated the TV awards. He writes:

Even if you aren’t partial to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which swept the drama series awards, the reality is that the even finer shows that were overlooked — Mad Men, Dexter, The Walking Dead, Damages, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, etc. — hail from AMC, Showtime and FX, and not ABC, NBC, Fox or CBS.

Why is this? Strachan digs for an answer:

The problem is that, by trying to be all things to all people, conventional TV can’t help but water down the product so that it’s palatable to a mass audience.

Emphasis mine. Why is this the case? TV didn’t used to have to be watered down to appeal to a mass audience. Tens of millions of people across America watched, say, The Twilight Zone in the 1960s. Quality drama drawing huge audiences could be found on broadcast networks through the 1990s: ER, The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Homicide: Life on the Streets, to name but a few. So what happened?

FX’s Landgraf is the first to admit that specialty channels have an advantage when it comes to quality. Because the specialty channels rely more on revenue from cable subscriptions and are less dependent on ratings and advertising, a specialty channel can focus on a niche audience. All that matters is that it be good — good enough that someone, somewhere will want to pay extra to see it.

Emphasis mine again… and this is depressing. Is “quality” now something that only a niche audience wants? What happened in less than 20 years to so significantly alter the television landscape? And will things ever go back to the way they were?

Are American broadcast TV and quality programming now hopelessly incompatible?

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