Premium Nets Are Changing the Face of TV

Last week I watched the season finale of HBO's Treme, the season premiere of the ABC's The Glades, & the latest installment of NBC's Persons Unknown. The difference in overall quality of the shows hit me like a freight train. Treme was a well written, well produced tragic send off of its 1st season. The Glades came off of as Dark Shadows w/ a Desperate Housewives twist (if not for the cliffhanger ending, I would have deleted it from my DVR timer). I do like Persons Unknown, but feel it is holding back, no where near realizing its full potential.

You know, it has gotten to the point where I am tempted to downsize my Dish Network subscription to just the Premium Cable Networks. If not for the very verbal backlash from my family, I would probably do just that.

Why do this?

Because, w/ a few exceptions, there really isn't anything I can't live w/o on the broadcast or basic cable networks. Now if I lost HBO while True Blood was airing new eps, I'd drive myself crazy wondering what is happening. Then there are HBO shows like Treme, & the upcoming Boardwalk Empire & A Game of Thrones. Don't even get me started on all the shows I'm missing on Showtime and Starz, (both of which I had a subscription to at one point, but unfortunately we can only afford one premium package). The premium networks are where to get good, intelligent TV.

When you think about it, it is amazing how much has changed in the last 10-15 years. Before the Sopranos & Sex In the City, the premium nets were all about attracting subscribers via the "latest, greatest blockbuster only found here." Now it's their original programming which they tout. Not to mention, they have no reason to really pay attention to Nielsens, which are designed for measuring viewer count for advertising revenue. All HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc care about are attracting & retaining subscribers. My guess is they trade reporting from satellite & cable carriers (Dish Network, Comcast, etc) for licensing fee credits (thus all the 3 months free deals). When you think about it, the premium networks don't give a shit about how old a viewer is, whether or not they own or rent, of if they're going to the mall w/n the next week to burn some cash. They don't care as long as that particular person is subscribed to and watching their network.

The entertainment industry is changing. The Nielsen system has been outdated since before the Commodore 64. Advertisers are more frugal w/ their spending, often opting to go with the cheaper online alternative to get their brand out. Not to mention, major networks have no patience w/ original programming if they need to grow an audience, often opting to go with the much cheaper reality programming "alternative programming". The basic cable nets have the patience to grow audiences w/ shows (especially if it receives positive critical & blogger reviews), but most either don't have or are unwilling to risk more than a bare-minimum production budget. The premium networks, however, create a TV show in a similar manner of a movie. They spend the budget to create a well crafted TV experience. They even have the entire season in the can before it airs...total opposite of the major networks, who order scripts by the episode (hmmm, maybe that is why many network shows seem disjointed).

However, I believe over the next 5 years, we're going to see more and more networks following the "HBO model". We're already seeing evidence of it now. AMC's Breaking Bad, SyFy's Caprica, & FX's Justified to name a few. Though they might not necessarily have the budget of the premium networks, each is an ambitious, intelligent TV experience. I am certain we will see these examples & a more cable original programming nominated along side, if not dominating, in most categories come the July 8th Emmy announcements. If the past couple of years hold true, many cable series will beat out their major network counterparts and take home the Emmy.

Okay, so maybe I'll keep my basic cable subscription. I don't think I'd be able to function w/o having access to Breaking Bad, Caprica, or SG-U when their new seasons premiere. I'll also be keeping my HBO subscription, but keeping a close eye on the other premium networks. DVDs are cheaper than two more $9 - $12 per month subscriptions...well, that is until I start buying 3 or 4 of their shows per quarter. The premium nets don't have enough programming hours to be there...yet...but every year it seems like they add more programming hours, & every year the shows get more ambitious in both scope and production values.



REVIEW: One Discriptive Best Fits SG-U's Preultimate Season 1 Episode, Intense

I don't even know where to begin. SG-U's penultimate Season 1 episode Incursion Pt.1 just proved it is the 2nd most intense TV show currently being broadcast (next to only Breaking Bad). Seriously, it is very difficult to talk about the episode w/o leaking spoilers like Destiny leaks atmosphere.

Photo from SyFy.com

One of the tells of a great serialized series is the episodes bleed into one another, making it difficult to distinguish when one episode ends & the follow up begins. Such is the case w/ "Subversion" & "Incursion Pt. 1". Young does vent the cell effectively killing Telford (whose in Rush's body...it is a communication stones thing, makes perfect sense if you watch SG-U from the beginning). That is the opening scene, & the episode does not slow down from there.

Incursion also ties the loose end of who attacked the base in SG-U's premiere episode. This is the event that landed our marooned characters onto Destiny to begin with. The Lucian, an opposition group hell bent on getting their hands on alien technology, are using Rush (whose in Telford's body) to get onto Destiny. They do just that. After easily breaking through Col. Young's defenses, the resulting battle not only lands the pregnant T.J. as a Lucian hostage, but also leaves Cloe shot & lost in a previously unexplored portion of the ship w/ Eli (who is not known for his cool headedness in intense situations).

SG-U also does a great job in leaving certain plot elements unspoken. Though briefly acknowledged by Rush (now back in his own body), Destiny has obviously taken a disliking to the Lucian. Whether or not they play the Destiny card in the finale, certain events furthered my suspicion that Destiny is an A.I.

So strong the suspense and drama, I found myself sitting at the edge of my seat throughout the entire episode. I was so engrossed into Incursion that it was a physical shock when the screen blacked out after the final scene.

Stargate has come a long way since the planet of the week episodes of SG-1. SG-U not only proves it can be an amazing situational character drama, but also is raising the bar of what a serialized series can do.

Here's a clip from Incursion Pt. 2:

IMHO, a scene is the best "preview" to entice viewer interest & curiosity


REVIEW: Burn Notice's 4th Season Premiere Disappoints...Well Up Until the Last 10 Minutes, That Is

I'd like to start w/ a disclaimer, I have a love/hate thing w/ Burn Notice. There is no "it was an okay episode," "it could have been better," or "not the worst, not the best" here. By the end of an episode, I am either exhilarated or annoyed.

Photo from friskytuna via Flickr

If you're unfamiliar with Burn Notice, the catalyst of the series is Michael Weston, a burnt spy trying to get back into the spy game. He is marooned in this wasteland known as Miami. Each episode includes 3 basic plot elements. First is Michael's personal life, which involves his overly intrusive chain smoking Mom, Madelyn, his on again/off again gun toting girlfriend Fiona, & the charismatic ex-military intel operative Sam (played by Bruce "Evil Dead" Campbell). Each week, he takes on a client who has gotten themselves into some serious trouble w/ some serious people. Finally, there is the serialized story arc, which involves Michael solving the ever burning question, how to get his job as a spy back. It is a formula, but one that has proved to work really well in balancing out all the aspects of Michael's life.

In the 1st couple of seasons, the writers utilized this formula and created some amazing, entertaining, & hilarious episodes. Then, throughout most of the 3rd season, that spark (for a lack of a better word)wasn't there. The formula stagnated, as formulas can do.

That is my impression of season 4's premiere, Friends and Enemies. While watching the episode, I felt as if I was being forcibly shoved from scene to scene. The episode lacked development & process. From Michael & his new contact, Vaughn, suddenly locating & on location of the remote jungle hideout of Gregory Hart (a painfully underused gun trafficer played by Michael Ironside) to Fiona waltzing into the headquarters of a biker gang so cliche in its portrayal I can't even remember what the gang was called. She of course easily locates and steals the information the team needed from an unguarded office on the second floor. Then magically that information is conveniently ties Winston, the client, to Big Ed, the biker gang leader who's the only one who can lift the kill on sight tag off of Winston's head. Aside from a righteous chase/firefight scene, the whole biker/lawyer story was anti-climatic, & really nothing close to the mind blowing intense action & drama you'd expect from a season premiere. Even the actors themselves had this air of just going through the motions about them.

Overall, I spent most of the episode thinking it is the 3rd Season all over again. Then, probably the last 5 - 10 minutes of the episode, a sequence of events occurred. Vaughn had Micheal break into a government building in order to steal data on an investigation of Gregory Hart. The consequences of the break in resulted in a spy getting burned. It was a subtle but insane twist. Classic Burn Notice. The episode closed leaving me exhilarated & looking forward to next week's installment.


Summer is Cable's Time To Shine

I have a joke for you.

What is the difference between Cable Networks & the Broadcast Networks? If a show pulls in 4 million viewers, a Cable Network Exec will say "This show's a hit. Renew it, renew it NOW! Is that show renewed yet?" An Exec from one of the broadcast networks will say "This show is an embarrassment. Pull it, Pull it from the schedule NOW! We'll burn off the unaired episodes during the summer."

Recently, I got my hands on TV Guide's Summer Preview issue. With True Blood on the cover, I wasted no time tearing into it. While sifting through the Summer Preview portion, I noticed the vast majority of the shows were on Cable. Same w/ the noteworthy Highlights that precede that day's schedule grid.

Like the total TV geek that I am, I counted the all the shows that received a writeup. By my count, I found TV Guide featured 53 shows (both scripted & reality) premiering this summer. Of those, 36 are on cable (mostly scripted). The clear majority of the 17 broadcast networks' shows are reality programming.

If you Google eroding ratings, it is rare to find an article that doesn't mention Cable audiences are growing almost proportionally to the erosion of broadcast network audiences. There is a reason why Audiences are seeking refugee status on the Cable nets, and the Summer season is a big catalyst. The broadcast networks seem take the summer off, while Cable releases their most impressive programming.

No offense ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, & ABC, but reruns and reality shows suck. In the modern world of DVRs, VOD, & mobile streaming, you have got to be a year round business. Chances are if I didn't watch Gray's Anatomy, CSI, or Law & Order while they were first run, I probably won't be checking them out now. With SyFy, TNT, USA, FX, etc offering new & interesting scripted shows, I, along w/ millions of others, are going explore those options.

And, while I am watching the majority of my summer TV on Cable, guess what I'm going to be exposed to? That's right, previews for their Fall season. Being that a parent company can own multiple cable networks, there's also a lot of cross network promoting. I'm going to see what's premiering this fall on USA, while watching SyFy. No obnoxious billboards needed to get the word out there. And chances are, I'm going to find that new fall Cable show premiere a whole not more interesting than whatever new procedural drama CBS is offering.

I'm just a measly non-Nielsen TV junkie, but to me in light of not only competition from Cable, but also from summer movies, game releases, & of course the weather, Summer is clearly not the time to scale back your schedule. Year over year audience erosion show that tactic is flawed. Come on Broadcast Networks, step up. Put some effort into retaining your audiences over the summer. If you do, maybe, just maybe the audiences will still be there to successfully launch your fall premieres.

UPDATE 6/4/10: Just found this interesting article on tvbythenumbers.com. It outlines the growth of cable since the 80's.