For writers and producers looking to tell “grown-up” stories with complex characters, cable is a place where they prefer to work.
“The beauty of being on cable is that it’s so open. You can do whatever you want,” said Michelle Ashford, creator, writer and executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex.
Noah Hawley, writer and executive producer and showrunner of FX’s Fargo, says he’s had the network ask if he could make his show darker and more morally ambiguous.
"There are no limits on what your characters can do or say,” he said, adding that at FX “they want you to make a great show because that’s the brand of the network.”
Richard LaGravenese, co-creator, writer and executive producer of The Divide, coming to WE tv, says that broadcast networks liked their characters good or evil, black or white. “What’s wonderful is how audiences are responding to characters who are morally ambiguous. You can see how audiences are loving people like Walter White and Tony Soprano.”
Earlier in her career, Ashford spent a lot of time working on network TV. "I felt stifled as a writer. It felt very dissatisfying,’’ she said. That was the year The Sopranos came out. “I remember thinking, oh my God, that’s what you can do,” and she started working in cable.
These days, more people are watching shows time delayed, in binges or on digital devices, but the people who create the shows “don’t consider that. It’s still about telling the story,” said LaGravenese. He says how people watch shows amazes him. “They’re multitasking and still follow the story.”
“You have to put your head down and do your work,” and not think about how shows get disseminated. Ashford added. “It’s madness out there. If we think that people are watching on their phone, it’s discouraging. You can’t take that into account.”
At the same time, the ability to watch shows whenever viewers want and as often as they want, means shows get more scrutiny from viewers. “They’ll see things we didn’t intend or notice ourselves. They can control how they watch and how many times they watch. It’s a very aware public out there,” Ashford said.
That also affects the way shows get measured, minimizing the agita that can come from overnight ratings. “Our last episode was up 100% over seven days,” Hawley said.
Cable shows also have an advantage in producing only a dozen or so episodes per season, compared to more than 20 for broadcast because it attracts actors like Billy Bob Thornton, who also want to have time to do other projects over the course of a year.
Cable’s quality programming binge will continue “as long as it’s a profit generating renaissance,” Hawley said. “Will we reach a point of oversaturation? It’s hard to say with Yahoo and the digital companies getting into the business at the same time. You can’t worry about that. You just tell your story."