In Depth

Adalian Column: Networks Must Evaluate Shows on Merits as Much as Ratings

Joe Adalian

It was easy to tell the difference between broadcast and cable executives during the recently concluded TV Critics Association press tour.

The cable guys were the ones bouncing around the Beverly Hilton with big ol’ grins on their faces. Critics couldn’t stop kvelling over their shows. Every other day during the tour, there seemed to be another press release about sky-high ratings for the second season of “Army Wives” or the latest episode of “Monk.”

Then there were the folks from the Big Five (talk about a label that seems comically antiquated).

Because of the writers strike, most of the broadcast networks showed up with very little new product to talk up. Hallway conversations focused on declining ratings, the dying sitcom or the latest reality show dud.

No wonder, then, that one prominent cable executive who’s often mentioned as a possible candidate to head a network laughed out loud when I brought up rumors that there might soon be an opening for him.

“Why would I want to run a network?” he said. “Who needs those headaches?”

I thought about that statement last week when CBS announced a time-slot swap for summer dramas “Swingtown” and “Flashpoint.” The latter show is moving behind “CSI” repeats on Thursday, while the former is headed to a likely death on Friday nights.

Swingtown

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE "Swingtown" got pummeled by reviewers who complained CBS had no right to attempt something so risque.

From a short-term perspective, the move makes all the sense in the world. “Flashpoint” fits right in with CBS’ blood-and-bullets formula, and it probably will benefit from a “CSI” lead-in. Plus, because it’s a Canadian import, it costs dramatically less to produce than a typical drama.

By contrast, “Swingtown” offers no cost savings—and in some ways is even more expensive than a regular drama. That’s because advertisers like Procter & Gamble have avoided running ads in the show, as Advertising Age reported a few weeks ago.

“It is a shame,” one media buyer told the magazine. “When the networks try to push the envelope a little and try to be more like HBO, the advertisers run away.”

It’s not just advertisers making it hard for networks to take chances.

Critics regularly—and rightly—bitch about CBS’ overreliance on crime procedurals and middle-of-the-road fare. But when the network stepped outside its safety zone with “Swingtown,” it got pummeled by reviewers who complained it had no right to attempt something so risque.

What’s more, many TV reporters accused CBS of turning “Swingtown” into burnoff theater by airing it in the summer—even though the network launched an extensive promo campaign for the series that included billboards, bus ads and extensive on-air advertising.

But, to paraphrase something ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson said during the press tour, there’s no crying in network TV. Just because it’s harder to stick with quality shows doesn’t mean networks shouldn’t try.

NBC renewed “The Office” and “30 Rock” even though both shows barely had pulses after their first seasons. The network is bringing back “Friday Night Lights” for a third season, and while some critics might not like the fact that it will air on DirecTV first, give credit to NBC for trying everything it can think of to make the show work for its air.

While the overwhelming critical support and upscale demographics for “Office” and “30 Rock” made the Peacock’s mission easier, it still took guts for NBC to stick by two series many network observers once considered hopeless.

CBS, which is home to no small number of very smart executives, has to start showing similar intestinal fortitude if it wants to avoid the fate of so many past winning networks that have hewed too closely to a winning formula. Too many times in recent years—think “Love Monkey,” “Moonlight,” “Cane,” “The Class”—the network has opted for short-term scheduling stability instead of supporting the kinds of shows that could help it evolve its brand and attract new audiences.

“Sooner or later, the networks are going to have to begin making some decisions to keep shows on, even if it doesn’t seem to make any economic sense,” one senior executive told me last week. “We’ve got to break out of this quarter-to-quarter mindset.”

“Swingtown” isn’t a perfect show. Many critics have complained about the uneven quality of its first few episodes, and it’s clear producers have been struggling to figure out some of the characters and plotlines.

But consider this bit of CBS history: Eight years ago, the network launched “Big Brother” in the summer. Despite bad reviews and disappointing ratings, the network decided to give the show another chance—and, in the process, launched an unscripted tentpole that still stands.

With “Swingtown,” CBS has found another possible summer staple—not to mention a golden chance to start evolving beyond its reputation as the crimesolvers channel.