When we were first putting together the list of networks that needed to be discussed in this series, the initial conversation was pretty straightforward. You take the five broadcast networks, the three big pay cablers, the three big streamers, and you finish with cable. Okay, that’s cool and easy, so what’s the issue?
Well, it wasn’t until we were well into it that it occurred to us that it’s not actually possible to break the various major networks precisely down corporate lines in the number of weeks allotted, which is how we end up here, today, looking at a bunch of different networks with three different owners. Those networks — News Corps’ FX and FXX, Time Warner’s TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim and TruTV, and AMC Networks’ AMC, IFC, BBC-America, WeTV and SundanceTV — are all fairly typical of today’s cable TV world, which is to say chaotic. It’s not terribly easy to categorize them a certain way, because they don’t perform the same and, in fact, give us alternate views about the health of the cable television industry.
Okay, that’s probably overstating things a little, because it’s hard to be terribly positive about the cable television industry, but the point is that, while most operations are steadily headed south, there are at least a couple that are still bringing in some money for their parent companies, and so it’s probably wise to start with them.
That is, TNT and TBS. Falling under the aegis of Turner Broadcasting, which also includes CNN (not covered in this survey), the pair of cable networks have actually done quite well for their parent company over the last few years, and are unquestionably among the most successful networks currently broadcasting. Some of that comes from the amazing results they have both found from showing second-run programming in syndication — see for Exhibit A, The Big Bang Theory on TBS — but also in their recent run of original programming. Just a couple weeks ago, in fact, TBS showed five nights of the fascinating dramedy Search Party, which distinguished itself by being unlike anything else on television. You would think that, in this Golden Age of televised content, that kind of thing would be more prevalent, but it simply isn’t. The cookie cutter process of TV development tends to weed out a good deal of originality, so that when something like this comes along, something that initially makes people wonder what to make of it, the public has to sit up and take notice. A similar thing happened with Angie Tribeca, and that alone sets the network apart from most.
Well, that, and the spectacular numbers that TBS and TNT — along with the several other networks under the Turner/Time Warner umbrella — put up, both financially and in viewership. In fact, while we can spend a little time touching on the other Turner properties, none of them hold a candle to either TNT or TBS, both of which have average viewership numbers far superior to their sister networks’. Even CNN gets just a fraction of the close to two million viewers of TBS and the approximately 1.8 million of TNT, though Adult Swim does pull in around 1.3 million, which is not too shabby. While all three of those networks did, in fact, lose viewers from 2014 to 2015, none of them shed at a rate as high as most others out there, in itself a small victory.
And if that doesn’t illustrate just how dire things are right now, it’s tough to find a better example.
Interestingly, TNT’s viewer numbers fell off much more than TBS’s did, primarily because of the difference in programming. TNT focuses almost exclusively on drama, TBS on comedy, and while dramas tend to do better in the ratings on their initial run, in syndication, comedy is king, hence the strong numbers put up by the division. While Time Warner doesn’t differentiate which of its cable networks were profitable and which were not — they are all lumped together in the Turner division of the company — it’s not hard to posit that the nine percent gain over 2015 in the quarter ending September 30th, and the seven percent gain in year to date, comes primarily from that one network. Which is, again, both good and bad.
Sticking with TBS, aside from the two shows previously mentioned, there is also the current comedy People of Earth, as well as the 13th season of American Dad, upcoming second seasons of both Wrecked and The Detour, and perhaps most prestigiously, Conan O’Brien in late night and, one night a week, one of the best shows on television, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, whose show was just renewed for a second season and whose profile is only going to rise in the coming months in the wake of last month’s presidential election. While sister network TNT has some interesting fare, in the form of current series Bad Behavior and returning series The Last Ship, Major Crimes, Animal Kingdom, and The Librarians, nothing really pops like the options at TBS.
Adult Swim is similarly zeitgeisty, with such grabbers as Mike Tyson Mysteries, Uncle Grandpa, Robot Chicken, Childrens Hospital, The Eric Andre Show, Teen Titans Go!, and, of course, Rick and Morty. The advantage that Adult Swim/Cartoon Network has is that there is no real competitor (yet, see below), which makes it the core outlet for animated fare, the main reason why its viewer attrition was so negligible. It’s why there’s more of the same coming down the pike, including a new Justice League series, a reboot of the popular Samurai Jack, and projects like Art Prison (in which talented convicts vie for one last shot at success inside a Prison for the Performing Arts because they have to), which is pretty much a perfect example of the eclectic fare you’re going to get there.
Likewise, TBS is sticking with what it knows will work: a new series from Greg Garcia called The Guest Book, a horror comedy from Aubrey Plaza called Nightmare Time, an animated comedy about a tattoo artist called Tarantula executive produced by Danny McBride, a weekly sports talk show with Rob Riggle, and a reality competition show that pits celebrities against each other in rap battles called Drop the Mic. TNT’s development roles are similarly ambitious, with the period drama Will, about a young Shakespeare trying to make it in the rough and tumble world of 17th century London, an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s seminal novel The Alienist, with Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans, and other heavy fare like the travel drama Foreign Bodies and the domestic drama Hinges, an adaptation of the cult sci-fi film Snowpiercer, a drama about the man behind the Dark Net, a political talk show from NBA Hall of Famer and pundit Charles Barkley, and a brand new take on Tales from the Crypt, among others.
Point is, none of the three are afraid to spend plenty of money in their attempts to keep viewers tuned to their network.
Similarly, it’s tough to find any network on cable television more progressive than FX, which has lately been a magnet for Emmy awards and various other kudos. Just look at its Murderer’s Row of programming: The Americans, American Horror Story, Fargo, American Crime Story, Baskets, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Strain. That doesn’t even include Louie, which may or may not ever return, and the two most recent additions, Better Days and Atlanta, the latter of which was just rewarded with Writers Guild Award nominations. The work that John Landgraf and his team are doing there — and, to a lesser extent, at FXX, which is focused solely on comedy and is perhaps currently best known for You’re the Worst, Archer (both of which are among the best comedies on the air), and Simpsons reruns — can’t really be criticized all that harshly. While it lost 14 percent of its audience from 2014 to 2015, the first six months of 2016 was its most successful half year in its history, thanks to The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, The Americans and Fargo, all of which have now won Emmy awards. Figure that Atlanta will soon follow, at least with plenty of nominations, if not trophies.
While FXX is going to go into more animated fare and short form programming, to ape the success of Adult Swim and give that other network a real competitor in that field, FX will continue to push the envelope and essentially dare viewers not to tune in. That philosophy is typified by the next two shows coming out, the Tom Hardy-led period piece Taboo, and the X-Men spinoff Legion, about a schizophrenic mutant, from Fargo creator Noah Hawley. Whether or not either of those shows is your cup of tea, they both almost certainly caught your attention, and that’s the whole point. That seems to be FX’s modus operandi in a nutshell.
Looking at its development roles won’t do anything to change that thinking, with sci-fi comedy Singularity, from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, picked up to series, the period crime drama Snowfall, from John Singleton, another period drama from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy called Trust, another anthology series from Ryan Murphy called Feud, the first season of which will feature the infamous pairing of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, and an animated comedy from Louis C.K. and Albert Brooks, as well as such out of the box possibilities as Cat’s Cradle, also from Hawley and based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel, a mini-series about the life of legendary director Bob Fosse, the fantasy horror Basilisk from Hunger Games helmer Frances Lawrence, a remake of the classic mini-series Shogun from Michael De Luca, and an adaptation of the award-winning comic book series Y: The Last Man, among others. That’s an impressive list of projects, not least because of the riskiness of each endeavor.
Which brings us to AMC, a network and a company that was riding high not so long ago, but now is suffering from some serious doldrums. Seriously, just a year ago, the company’s stock price was close to its all-time high, a shade over $83 per share. Now? It’s hovering around $52. Not good. Also not good? Sinking ratings and viewer frustration with what has been the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead, general frustration and disdain for the spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, and while Better Call Saul has gone some length to fill the critical void left behind by the ending of the show that spawned it, Breaking Bad, and the show that made it possible, Mad Men, there is still a gaping yaw where those two titans used to reside. Not often a network, cable or broadcast, has the two best shows on television at any given time, but it’s not difficult to imagine that, when that golden run ends, it’s awfully hard to keep it going. AMC is no different.
While Halt and Catch Fire has a nice little following, its fourth season will be its last, Turn is also entering its final season after a middling run, the comic book adaptation Preacher was a solid if unspectacular performer, as is Into the Badlands. The high profile Feed the Beast was canceled after one season, and the unscripted series Comic Book Men, Ride with Norman Reedus and the various post-show talkfests hosted by Chris Hardwick aren’t huge draws. The Tom Hiddleston-led mini-series The Night Manager was a smash, but it was only six episodes and there won’t be any more, which is not terribly fortuitous.
So does the network have anything coming up that might remind us of the glory days of the recent past? There’s a family epic with Pierce Brosnan called The Son, the drama Lodge 49 with Wyatt Russell, a horror anthology called, yes, The Terror, from Ridley Scott, a remake of a British show called Loaded, and another remake, this one about a Russian mafia family, called McMafia. Projects in development include Dietland, from UnREAL EP Marti Noxon, the supernatural horror pilot NOS4A2, from Michael Eisner, the auto racing drama The Limit from Patrick Dempsey, and a mini-series adaptation of the David Carr memoir The Night of the Gun, from Bob Odenkirk and Shawn Ryan. Not an unimpressive list there and lord knows the early synopses of Mad Men and Breaking Bad probably didn’t blow many skirts up, but until the network can really knock one out of the park again, it will continue to be held to what might be an impossibly high standard.
IFC has some interesting programming, including Documentary Now!, Maron (which just ended its four-season run), Portlandia (still going strong through seven), The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and the new horror spoof Stan Against Evil, but no one would ever call the network prolific. Same for sister station SundanceTV, which is seeing Rectify end this week after four successful seasons, a new season of its smash mini-series Top of the Lake, the adaptation Hap and Leonard, and the German series Deutschland 83, but while the former has Brockmire, from Hank Azaria, on the way, and the latter has Joe Berlinger’s doc series Murder in the Heartland: In Cold Blood Revisited on route, neither has a lengthy list of potential hit shows in the offing.
BBC-America has Doctor Who and Orphan Black, among other offerings like Ripper Street and Broadchurch and new series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but Orphan Black is ending soon, and while there are plenty of potential projects on the horizon — including the sci-fi teen drama Class, the action thriller Killing Eve, and the animal docuseries Dynasty — the shows all have a decidedly British sensibility, which is great if that’s what you’re in to. The network draws an average of about 250,000 viewers, which makes it pretty specific. That’s still a higher number than either IFC or SundanceTV, mind you, which is kind of the issue.
WeTV, interestingly, has higher viewer numbers than any of the other three, with roughly a half million viewers, but its programming is exclusively unscripted and aimed firmly at women of a certain age, which is great when it works, but doesn’t necessarily bring a lot to the bottom line.
An interesting recent development is the company’s purchase of a minority stake in Funny or Die, which it plans to use in conjunction with its IFC network, but until some fruit comes from this endeavor, it’s really hard to tell how wise an investment that is.
Ultimately, this melange of networks and stations offer something of a microcosm of the current reality. There is some success, some middling performance, some disappointment, but an almost universal malaise that is becoming increasingly difficult to turn around. Even small victories, like Turner’s recent financial success or the short-term gains of an FX, come amidst turmoil, frustration and shedding viewership. It’s a near Sisyphean task, to succeed in the current climate, and while each network is doing the best it can, there’s really only so much each really can do.
Next week, we wrap up the Network Series with the Disney lineup of cable nets, which have their own issues, as we’ll see.