Do You Watch Television Differently Depending on What Channel You’re Watching?
It had to happen: Twitter has changed the way I look at television. Not literally, you understand (I still just sit in front of it and look forward; I tend to find that works better than watching from some obscure and impossible-to-maintain yoga position), but after reading Josh Friedman’s comments on cable television versus network, I’m wondering if I’m a television snob. On the plus side, maybe you are, too.
Over the weekend, inspired by this weekend’s episodes of Mad Men and Game of Thrones, Friedman – who was the creator and showrunner of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and also created the much-loved-by-everyone-but-Fox pilot adaptation of IDW’s Locke & Key comic – took to Twitter for the following (edited for clarity):
Mad Men and Game of Thrones last night show the power of what we currently call “serialized” storytelling but should really just be calling storytelling. The ability to treat a season like a story is the biggest reason cable will always be a more satisfying experience than network The latest “golden age” of TV coincides with latest golden age of TV writers given freedom & control… Cable TV drama is reviewed and discussed, Network TV drama is recapped and digested. Different rates of critical metabolism. I say this as someone who has developed almost exclusively in network TV and continues to do so, but the financial imperatives of network [television] create conceptual/logistical barriers to story nuance/pacing and to execution at the highest level. Networks strong enough to take risks have neither the desire nor real estate to do so. Networks weak enough to take risks cant launch shows.
There’s a lot to unpack there – Not least of which is the idea that the scale of network television requires such cost/profit that experimentation is frowned upon because the cost of failure is so high – but what really stuck with me what the part about cable television drama being reviewed and discussed, while network television drama is recapped and digested.
I don’t agree with that in totality – I did, after all, just finish discussing the latest season of Fringe instead of simply recapping it – but it got me thinking about the way in which I approach something like Mad Men compared with something like, say, Castle as a viewer, and the results got me feeling a little guilty. I realized that, while I tend to think of cable dramas as season-long stories, and don’t expect complete arcs or explanations/results at the end of every episode, but that (with only a few exceptions), that is how I view network dramas. Even in those exceptions – a Lost, an Awake or whatever – I find myself having a greater expectation that each individual episode will have a stronger coherence and throughline as an individual block of story than I would something on cable.
When I think about why I have those expectations, I’m not sure what’s there, beyond the idea that cable has traditionally proven to be better at supplying satisfactory season-long arcs without loose ends or filler material than network (The one exception still on air that I’m tempted to make to the latter is, oddly, Parenthood, which manages to somehow pace everything out well each year). But the idea that network television is somehow lesser than cable is pervasive, and I can’t quite work out if that’s because (a) it actually is, or (b) we as an audience just prefer what’s on offer in the cable model, because we want longer stories that add up to more of a weighty experience.
I’m left thinking that I need to recalibrate my approach to network television, and look deeper into where each episode falls in the larger season arc, as well as how each episode works as an individual block… and maybe I need to stop giving weaker episodes of cable television a pass because it’ll probably have greater meaning once the season is finished, as well.
Am I the only one who watches cable and network shows differently, and if so, do you have a better reason for doing so than mine? Comment away below and teach me things.