How Cable Helped the Big Four Get Creative


When Alice went down the rabbit hole and “through the looking glass,” things were no longer what they seemed. Up was down, left was right, and things became “curiouser and curiouser.”

Sounds sort of like television in 2004.

For the first time in many years, three “water cooler shows” are on broadcast TV. Desperate Housewives, Lost and CSI: N.Y. are getting great press, great ratings and even Golden Globe nominations. The idea that three new shows are in the top ten for the fall is novel enough, but the fact that people are talking about Housewives and Lost as innovative suggests that the gloves are off on creativity.

It’s also fascinating that ABC is being applauded for taking a risk with two new scripted hours, considering how low the network had to fall in the ratings before acknowledging that they could afford to take a chance, since there wasn’t much to lose.

But for cable, innovation is an ongoing drive, not a tactic to be used only when all else fails. And while most people remember that cable created the reality format with The Real World a decade ago, well before the broadcasters embraced the genre with a vengeance, remember, too, that cable actually began the renaissance of scripted dramas a few seasons ago with Monk, The Shield and The Dead Zone.

So who is the innovator and who is the emulator? I guess it depends on which side of the looking glass you happen to be.

Taking a page from the cable playbook, the broadcasters are now opting for shorter seasons but more of them, allowing them to put more new fare in front of viewers. And they also began scheduling second airings of popular shows on a night with few risks: Saturday. This fall, viewers had another chance to see Lost or to watch The Donald fire one of his young apprentices, with more boardroom footage than the Thursday night original. Extra footage? That sounds a page from the DVD playbook.

Just 18 months ago, we were asking whether reality television was the savior of the networks or the symbol of the decline of civilization, and the jury is still out. In 2004, yes, there are too many reality shows, and yes, those that are on the air are too derivative, too mean-spirited and too cheesy. Competitive reality is still going strong, and classics of the genre—Survivor, Amazing Race and even The Apprentice—have their loyalists. But then we have all those nasty, cynical, and yes, “obnoxious” takes on the genre.

On the other hand, a more positive trend in reality is emerging, and interestingly, ABC has once again taken the risk with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. This trend toward self-discovery, wish fulfillment and life-changing opportunities has certainly tapped into something Americans have been missing. Shows like American Chopper, Queer Eye, and Pimp My Ride allow young adults to think, “I could do that to my car/house/boyfriend/whatever.” Extreme Makeover has certainly taken that to a new high.

In short, the more viewers are finding what they want on cable, the more they’ll keep looking for those shows whenever and wherever they watch TV. With the benefit of scheduling according to viewer availability, and brands that guide their audiences toward the shows they want to watch, cable will certainly have the edge, even in a looking glass world.

Frank is executive vice president, research and planning of Viacom’s cable networks, film and publishing units.