WHY BROADCAST TV HAS FALLEN OUT OF FAVOR

Courtesy of pexels.com.

While the Primetime Emmy’s do not mean everything (often getting notoriously snubbed can actually be better for PR and viewership, just ask The Wire or Orphan Black), they certainly are a good indication of clout. This year’s Emmy nominations saw a slew of pleasant surprises among many major series and acting categories, from Zendaya’s well-deserved Outstanding Lead Actress nod for Euphoria to Outstanding Comedy Series noms for Issa Rae’s critical darling Insecure and completely left field mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows on FX. One thing majorly missing from many major categories were broadcast television shows, with only a single one, NBC’s The Good Place, nominated among the sixteen hopefuls between both Outstanding Series categories.

While such omissions might not be immediately noticeable to the non awards-show groupies or television enthusiasts, it is not difficult for even the most casual of viewers to notice the rise of streaming in the last half-decade. Scripted shows on broadcast networks have, simply put, largely fallen out of favor with critics and even more so with commercial audiences, and broadcast is certainly not the American tentpole it used to be. Conversation-starting shows of the 2000s and early 2010’s like Survivor (CBS), Desperate Housewives (ABC), 30 Rock (NBC) and Modern Family (ABC) not only ruled the roost commercially, but dominated the Primetime Emmy nominations list with frequent wins. Broadcast television since its inception has been the majority stakeholder in both Outstanding Comedy and Drama Series categories, with every major network enjoying Academy praise virtually every year until the mid-2010s. The sole exception is the consistently-snubbed CW, with not a single acting or Outstanding Series nomination for the network. As they so eloquently put it in 2012:

Compare that to today: 2017 saw a streaming/online-only show taking home an Outstanding Series win for the first time, for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Since then, a streaming show has taken one of the two Outstanding Series category wins every year. In fact, a broadcast television hasn’t taken home both major statues since 2006, or even won one of them since 2014. HBO & Netflix have been taking the top two to three spots in terms of number of nominations for the last half decade, and the reasons for broadcast’s downfall are actually quite simple to define.

Part of it simply comes down to history, semantics and rules. It wasn’t until 1988 at the 40th Primetime Emmys that cable television shows were even eligible at the ceremony (eligibility at the Daytime Emmys came a year later). The first cable nominations were for HBO, Showtime and PBS (only the latter of which for an Outstanding Series category). It wasn’t until two ceremonies later that a cable program won in an acting category, and four year later in a series category (both of which went to HBO). Furthermore, the first time Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress was won by a non-broadcast actor was 1992, by Disney of all channels; It wasn’t until the rise of streaming that the company would re-enter the awards bait arms race with The Mandalorian. Eventually, the first streaming nomination in a major category came in 2013, for Netflix’s House of Cards.

PBS’ “Rumpole of the Bailey,” the first non-broadcast show nominated in an Outstanding Series category at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Screenshot courtesy of BBC/PBS.

History aside, likely the biggest culprit to blame for streaming’s recent supremacy is its lessor (and sometime lack of) degree of censorship. Simply put, shows produced for broadcast television are legally bonded by significantly more censorship regulations by the FCC and the networks themselves, regarding both language and content. By virtue of reaching almost every TV set in the country, and by extension the widest American audience available, networks are often stingy about the types of content that can actually make it to air in effort to offend as few as possible. This often means toning down instances of taboo topics like sex, race relations, and above all politics; it wasn’t until fairly recently that depictions of queerness on television weren’t considered major financial risks, and even now on broadcast television that is mostly relegated to gay white men and women.

That line of thinking is for the most part outdated, and most progressive media consumers of today want more authentic viewing experiences that represent people and characters that actually exist around them. That means more actors of color, more queer characters, and less skirting around serious issues like mental health, sexual assault and race discrimination.

As independent companies, some of which with the intent to cater to niche audiences, cable and streaming companies need not worry as much about censorship. These programs put particular emphasis on show creators and showrunners, and often give them the majority of creative control. This implies a far greater willingness to tackle more taboo subjects, which in the current age of a far more politically unrested society, means more authenticity. This means we now get nuanced, masterfully crafted shows like Ramy, Fleabag, BoJack Horseman, Pose, When They See Us, I May Destroy You, and so many more that not only do not feel the need to tiptoe around these issues, but are rewarded with views and accolades specifically for those choices.

“Pose,” “When They See Us” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” three non-broadcast programs that have received acting and/or series awards at the Emmys. Screenshots courtesy of FX/Netflix/Hulu.

The sheer volume of options and channels thanks to streaming and the rise of original programming also play a huge role in broadcast’s downswing. With so many channels and new streaming services vying for our attention today, the meager five networks that make up American broadcast TV are bound to start getting drowned out. That, coupled with the nation’s increasing frustration with greedy cable companies convincing more and more to “cut the chord” every year, combine to spell bad news for broadcast.

But to be contrarian, that massive influx of options could be anti-broadcast’s downfall in the long run. Cutting the chord is now standard enough practice to make broadcast networks sweat, and already the market has been inundated with streaming services far and wide, some of which you no doubt haven’t even heard of. Smaller time companies like Vudu do alright by their own standards, but the average American certainly does not turn to them first for entertainment (and lest we forget the disappointment that was Quibi). The potential lies in a flooding market in which there are simply too many options. And while we are in television’s second golden age, quality most definitely does not increase in direct proportion to quantity; derivate and sub-par shows will grow in numbers. Additionally, most Americans will plainly not opt to pay for so many services at once, potentially recreating the issue that made so many cut that chord in the first place.

Much in the same way the American video game crash of the 1980s was the result of a market overcrowded with knockoffs and other garbage, so to could streaming see a similar fate. In that fleeting moment that the wide-eyed newcomers succumb to the hubris of preemptive growth, if broadcast plays its cards right it could swoop in and steal back its lost audience. However, while plausible, that jump is certainly dramatic and not likely in the immediate future.

Logos for Peacock and CBS All Access, NBC and CBS’ forays into streaming services. Courtesy of NBC/CBS.

As pessimistic as this all may seem for the future of broadcast television, such fundamental phenomenons do not simply disappear overnight. Broadcast may not be king anymore, but daily news, sports programming like the Super Bowl, certain reality shows (The Bachelor franchise springs to mind), and lest we forget major award show broadcasts, still very much belong to the big four of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox (sorry CW). Besides, the hallmark of a good channel is its ability to adapt, and newfound streaming services like CBS All Access and Peacock show broadcast’s willingness in this area. Only time will tell if they viewers embrace them in the same way as the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, or if they will be forever seen as opportunistic attempts by the big boys club to grasp an audience that is slowly slipping away.

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