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Emmy watch: Are major network dramas losing out to cable?

CBS's "The Good Wife," starring Julianna Margulies, is arguably the best drama on network television right now.

Story highlights

  • The Emmys will be Sunday night at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles
  • AMC, HBO and Showtime have nabbed a huge chunk of the major nods this year
  • HBO received 104 nominations, the most of any network for the 11th year in a row
The Emmys will be Sunday night at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and AMC, HBO and Showtime have nabbed a huge chunk of the major nods this year. This yet again sparks the question that has been looming around the industry for years: Is the quality of programming from the major broadcast networks on the decline?
Numbers don't lie
When the nominations for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards were announced, HBO received 104, the most of any network for the 11th year in a row. With multiple opportunities to win for "Mildred Pierce" (21), "Boardwalk Empire" (18), "Game of Thrones" (13) and the miniseries "Too Big to Fail" (11), the cable network (which is owned by CNN's parent company) is poised to show up strong at this year's awards.
However, to be fair, major network comedies also received multiple nominations, including ABC's "Modern Family" (17); NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (16) and "30 Rock" (13); and FOX's "Glee" (12). Still, it's hard not to notice the lack of major network dramas in that list.
For some perspective, here is a breakdown of the most nominated networks for the 2011 Emmy Awards:
HBO: 104
CBS: 50
NBC: 46
PBS: 43
Fox: 42
ABC: 40
AMC: 29
Showtime: 21
Comedy Central: 11
ReelzChannel: 10
Major network nominations total 188, while cable television nominations earned a grand total of 271. PBS received 43 nominations.
So, one can't help but wonder: What is cable doing that major networks aren't, in terms of drama?
No more drama?
"Mad Men" creator and executive producer Matt Weiner has his own theory. He told the Los Angeles Times: "Cable has found a way to tap into a lot of frustrated creativity and exploit it financially. I can literally look at these shows on basic cable and pick where they would have been 10 years ago on network TV; some would not have been on at all."
Also, for the most part, cable series have shorter seasons than those on major networks. They usually run 10 to 13 episodes, as opposed to network television's 23 episodes a season.
Shorter seasons tend to mean tighter storytelling and less "filler" episodes. ("Desperate Housewives," we are looking at you.)
A perfect example of this is AMC's dramatic series "The Killing," which based its entire short season on one murder. Every episode of "The Killing" had the viewer glued to the small screen, thanks to the show's tight storytelling, outstanding acting and production qualities. It is much easier to keep a narrative interesting over 13 shows (without having to include unnecessary storyline filler) as opposed to a typical network season of 22 shows.
While a longer season is perfect for procedural dramas like "CSI," "Criminal Minds" and "Law & Order: SVU," shows that rely heavily on episodic storytelling have huge advantages with a shorter season.
Another thing cable networks are doing extremely well is delivering shows with outstanding production values. Shows featured on HBO and AMC often have lavish, visually striking sets that could easily be the backdrop of a major motion picture.
Last but not least, cable networks are blessed with the freedom to program to a niche audience. Network programming has been forced to cast a wider net, playing to the lowest common denominator. For instance, ABC's forthcoming remake of "Charlie's Angels" is a show that viewers would probably never see on an AMC network because of the pure fluff factor. Typically, cable networks tend to focus on producing intelligent shows that don't necessarily rely on gimmicks like the expected jiggle factor on a show like "Charlie's Angels."
"The Good Wife" is good drama
However, one quality drama on network TV does stand out among the crowd.
CBS's "The Good Wife" starring Julianna Margulies is arguably the best drama on network television right now. The combination of a stellar cast, high-quality writing and a compelling long-term story arc is superior to any other drama airing on the big four networks. The show's writers clearly value the intelligence of the show's viewers, and the actors are more than up to the task.
Other networks need to look to "The Good Wife" and start taking more risks. One may argue that there is something for everyone on television these days. However, I'd like to see more shows in the vein of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" gracing the television landscape, as opposed to more reboots like CBS's "Hawaii Five-O" and shows like the NBC dramedy "Harry's Law."