The broadcast networks used to make great TV shows. Now, more and more, they remake them instead—or borrow them from a cable network or international source that has already done the tough work of actual creativity.
On April 6, Monk and Psych, two entertaining shows from USA Network, begin a run of weekly repeats on NBC Universal's broadcast sister operation, NBC. This follows the recent, relatively successful decision by CBS to plunder Showtime, one of its own corporate bedfellows, and present first-season reruns of Dexter.
Some shows created for cable should simply stay put. HBO's Deadwood routinely was in my annual top 10, but I can't imagine its language and violence sanitized for a broadcast TV audience. (Ian McShane's character would have to be renamed Al Don't-Swearengen.) For that matter, having seen the unexpurgated versions of HBO's Sex and the City and The Sopranos, I couldn't stomach the edited versions of basic cable's TBS and A&E, respectively. But those telecasts, for the most part, are for people who haven't seen the originals.
Dexter, though, is surprisingly transferable to broadcast TV—at least season one. (Season two, which had a lot more sex, is a different matter.) Psych is such a light-hearted romp, the transfer is easy—and Monk, with Tony Shalhoub as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, is so made for broadcast TV, it should have been made for broadcast TV.
Monk is a throwback to those classic Universal cop shows of the 1970s, when Kojak and Columbo would solve cases in their own inimitable, entertaining, abrasive way. It's impressive, and laudable, that USA Network developed and began showing Monk six years ago. Conversely, it's very sad that, six years later, its appearance on NBC makes it look fresher than almost anything else presented on that network.
RECYCLED AND REDUNDANT
Think of it. Outside of Heroes (on hiatus) and Friday Night Lights (in limbo), is there a better drama on the NBC schedule than Monk? And at CBS, does any drama series this season compare to Dexter?
Instead of making bold new shows, the networks appear to be more intent on recycling, remaking or adapting old shows and formats. And even at that, every success—a well-adapted Ugly Betty on ABC, an eventually well-balanced The Office on NBC—is countered by scores of failures, from the horrid Viva Laughlin on CBS to NBC's updated but not improved Bionic Woman.
Consider the TV formats broadcast television once owned but has swept aside, leaving others to triumph with them instead. The made-for-TV movie. The miniseries. The comedy and variety specials, live and taped. Hour-long documentaries. Is there a possibility that, because of a combined lack of vision, taste and boldness on the part of the broadcast networks—a perfect storm of corporate stupidity—weekly dramatic series could join that endangered-species list before too long?
One of the saddest side effects of the rise of reality TV is that, so long as the networks continue to launch them endlessly in hopes of the next instant hit, fewer time slots are available for scripted dramas, especially new ones. And most welcome of all would be new ones that take risks, break molds and deliver the goods, being not only different but entertaining.
RELUCTANT TO TAKE RISKS
If broadcast networks don't take chances and develop their signature new shows, rather than recycling those of their cable competitors, the networks will end up suffering for it. Sure, such envelope-pushing cable series as AMC's Mad Men and FX's Rescue Me eventually could find a home on a broadcast network, but that broadcast network would be better served, and serve and retain its viewers better as well, by taking its own risks.
“The mounting pressure of costs on sponsors and networks alike has weakened the will to experiment,” noted Richard Austin Smith in a Fortune magazine article about the future of television.
“Yet as the medium loses its capacity to excite, to create and to lead,” he added, “its audiences will inevitably shrink. And as audiences shrink, more pressure to stick to 'successful' formats and eschew the unknown may well follow.”
It's a sensible prediction, and a dire one. What's really dire about that prediction, though, is that it was made in a Fortune article in 1958—a full 50 years ago.
We've come a short way, baby.