As more than a few entertainment journalists and pundits pointed out when the Emmy nominations were released last month, this year is the first time that none of the “Big Four” broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX) had a representative in the outstanding drama series category. The only place where broadcast networks are represented at all is by PBS’s “Downton Abbey;” the rest of the nominees are cable shows.
Representatives of the Big Four dot the drama acting categories — mainly via the presence of “The Good Wife” (understandable) and Kathy Bates (not so much) — but most of the drama categories are dominated by cable and “Downton.”
Meanwhile, on the comedy side, half of the six nominees for outstanding comedy come from the Big Four, with the broadcast side taking up approximately half the acting nominations as well.
What gives? Why does it seem like the traditional broadcast networks are holding on in the comedy department while seemingly conceding drama to cable? Let’s first look at a few reasons why they’re virtual no-shows in the drama categories:
They’ve given up on developing daring dramas… for now. Since the demises of “Lost” and “24,” any time a network has developed a drama that has continuing storylines or cable-like pacing, the shows have gotten hammered in the ratings (call it the “Lone Star” Theorem). This fall’s slate of new network dramas seems to mainly lean toward the soapy or procedural, formulas that have been safe and successful for the networks. Neither category has done well at the Emmys since at least the late ’90s, which leads to the other factor…
“The Sopranos” Effect. Cable’s development cycle is just plain different than the networks'; they tend to buy full seasons of shows and air them to completion, allowing buzz to build. Combine that with the additional creative freedom they give, and the product is slow-burn shows with deep characterizations like “Mad Men” and “Homeland” that would have never made it on broadcast TV. It’s been that way more or less since “The Sopranos” hit the air in 1999. A well-made procedural like “NCIS” may have won a lot in a previous era, but it’s tough to even get noticed by the academy when it’s competing with “Breaking Bad.”
Given those factors, then, why do the networks still have a presence in the comedy categories? A couple of thoughts come to mind:
NBC’s lousy ratings. The Peacock network held on to quality comedies like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” long after other networks would have canceled them, mainly because they didn’t have anything better in development. If they can’t be known for being No. 1 (or even No. 3), why not at least claim they’re the home of quality? NBC comedies have dominated the category since at least the mid-’00s. But now, with “The Office” on its last legs and “30 Rock” leaving after this season — and the network’s insistence on going “broader” with its comedy development — that gravy train may end very soon.
“Modern Family” and its huge cast. As long as “MF” is on the air, there’s a good chance that one or more of its stars will get nominated for an Emmy. And, considering the adult cast is signed through the show’s eighth season, they’re not going anywhere soon.
Comedy is on the upswing. Even though cable comedies like “Louie” and “Girls” are more daring than most of what networks have developed recently, there still seems to be room for some risky comedy on the Big Four. “Community” has managed to eke out four seasons on NBC, and upcoming shows like “The Neighbors,” “The New Normal” and “The Mindy Project” have the potential to be fun shows that break some new ground.
That development is the key to why we’ll be seeing the Big Four in the comedy categories for the time being. But unless “Revolution” becomes the new “Lost” or “Vegas” lives up to its strong pedigree, it’s unlikely the Big Four are going to make a recovery in the drama arena any time soon.