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Buzz Off - Broadcasting & Cable

Buzz Off

Broadcast networks can't keep up with cable—and maybe even broadband
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In nature, for reasons yet unexplained, huge swarms of bees are dying off. Yet on television, and around it, buzzing sounds are emanating from more—and more varied—places, and broadcast is no longer necessarily the queen bee.

A generation or so ago, ABC, NBC and CBS had the quality TV buzz-generation machine all to themselves. But these days, so many good shows are coming from so many different places that broadcast networks have to work harder to get noticed, much less embraced.

In the strike-hobbled fall season just promoted at the Television Critics Association press tour, there was one new broadcast series—I repeat, one—generating the sort of buzz normally associated with a possible new breakout hit. That would be Fringe, the new Fox series that's a moody, mysterious paranormal investigation show co-created by J.J. Abrams of Lost.

But the now-Big 4 networks have increasingly ceded the buzz competition to cable, and even broadband. Sex and the City became the first cable series to win an Emmy for best comedy series in 2001, and The Sopranos finally took the top drama award in 2004. And what HBO started, other networks picked up on, making their own reputations with excellent, attention-getting flagship shows. FX with The Shield, Rescue Me and others. Showtime with Weeds, Dexter and the like. USA with Monk. TNT with The Closer. AMC, most recently, with Mad Men.

CABLE: ALL GROWN UP NOW

Cable networks at one time were treated like the youngsters relegated to the children's table at Thanksgiving. Cable had its own awards—ACE, an acronym for Awards for Cable Excellence—because the Emmys didn't recognize cable shows at the time. Even when they did, it was grudgingly. The first cable series to generate enough buzz and acclaim to earn Emmy nominations, HBO's The Larry Sanders Show for comedy and The Sopranos for drama, didn't earn those nominations until 1993 and 1999, respectively. And the ACE Awards themselves, which started in 1978, didn't cease until 1997, when the quality generated from the cable universe was undeniable.

It's true that most cable programs still get just a trickle of the viewership compared to broadcast. Ratings-wise, Mad Men, with viewership levels averaging about 1.1 million, would about equal the average flop on The CW. It has grabbed so much attention that it's almost ripe for a backlash. Yet with season one just released on DVD, and season two launching on July 27 with more press attention than most broadcast shows will get this year, that cable series is in a position to double its audience in its second year.

Emmy nominations certainly won't hurt. Mad Men earned 16 nominations, more than twice the number of any other drama series this year, cable or broadcast. And in the Outstanding Drama Series category alone, the first-year AMC series was joined by another freshman cable-network entry, FX's Damages, and by the outstanding sophomore year of Showtime's Dexter. Those series are competing with such broadcast big boys as ABC's Lost and Boston Legal and Fox's House—and deserve to.

Against this backdrop, and against this increased competition, over-the-air networks have continued to score big from time to time—bigger by far, when they hit, than any of the competition. Lost and Desperate Housewives were perfect launches of original, hits-from-the-start primetime franchises.

For other sounds of buzz, you have to listen elsewhere. Last week, one of TV's most creative writer-producers, Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, launched a Website featuring his latest, Internet-only project: a delightful musical serial, starring Neil Patrick Harris, called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (at www.drhorrible.com).

When the first of three 14-minute parts was unveiled, the Website's server crashed for hours. That indicates quite a large demand—in other words, or in other sounds, quite a lot of buzz. And Harris gives such a great performance in this little Dr. Horrible diversion that it is, truly, Emmy-worthy. Or would be, if the Emmy voters even thought about recognizing such things.

But the Web is not TV. Not for now. Yet when more attention is drawn to Dr. Horrible, or to Mad Men, the zero-sum universe of media attention means that less attention is drawn to other things, like broadcast TV's strike-bitten fall season.

For the formerly dominant networks, there's no doctorly honorific necessary.

That's just Horrible.

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