Little bit of controversy in the TV world recently, because The Good Wife (CBS) is out stumping for Emmy love and decided to run a campaign basically attacking the differences between cable shows and network shows. (There’s more context here.)
From a logic standpoint, the argument that the people behind The Good Wife are making makes sense. Think about it like this: at the next Emmys (this fall), I believe Breaking Bad can still receive nominations for its final (“5B”) season. As a result, you’d expect them to win most things as kind of a going-away party for them, even though Better Call Saul will have started by then, and Anna Gunn has already been a guest on The Mindy Project, Dean Norris is in Under the Dome, Betsy Brandt is on The Michael J. Fox Show (which may be cancelled), etc. But … here’s the rub. Breaking Bad 5B had eight episodes. They were mostly great episodes — you could argue the penultimate one didn’t follow up on “Ozymandias,” but that’s trifling — but still, they were eight episodes. The Good Wife has 22 (possibly 24) episodes this season. That’s three times the work! And, in the process, The Good Wife still created one of the most talked-about scenes in TV (cable or network) this year, that being the death of Will (above).
Take Mad Men as another example. This is 7A we’re in right now (goddamn AMC and their split finale seasons). It’s only going to be seven episodes. The first one wasn’t even that great, and you still know Mad Men will rack up the nominations — but for 7 episodes vs., again, a 22/24-episode season. Same with True Detective (eight episodes, with the last two being kinda odd) or House of Cards (12 episodes).
Then there’s the second argument: the entire financial model is different. Cable networks make money off subscribers; hence, (at least theoretically) they can spend more time on the art (or the craft) of a show as opposed to worrying about ratings. If Breaking Bad had been on network (I realize that’s an impossibility via the content of the show), it would have been cancelled after Season 2. The best stuff that happened in Breaking Bad happened from mid-Season 3 onward, so the world would have been robbed of that greatness. Mad Men’s season 7A premiere got 2.3 million viewers; that’s one-half of the CBS show Friends with Better Lives, which just debuted and features “E” from Entourage and James Van Der Beek. Now, am I comparing Mad Men to Friends with Better Lives? Good Lord, no. The point is — you put a show like Mad Men on network TV, it (a) is messed with by the higher-ups, (b) loses its candor, and (c) gets cancelled really fast. AMC, on the other hand, is probably not happy with the 2.3 million, but bottom-line wise, it’s not the end of the world. They still have subscribers.
It all comes back to this, then: for awards purposes — or hell, even for contextual discussion purposes — can you really evaluate a network show up against a cable show, when you consider the different fiscal models and the different episode runs? Probably not. That doesn’t mean the campaign of The Good Wife was cool — in some ways, it was pretty tacky — but it’s still an interesting issue. Now, all this being said, if you had a “network drama” category at the Emmys and a “cable drama” category, that would be like Eastern/Western conference playoffs in skewed sports (i.e. no one cares about one side). I’m not even sure I could come up with five nominees for network drama. The Good Wife. Maybe The Blacklist. Maybe Hannibal. Maybe the new season of 24. Not even sure. For cable, if you had five nominees and pretty much slotted in Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that push for the final three slots would be intense. The quality of the product is better, no doubt — but that’s because of context. You can think that something like Modern Family or NCIS are great shows — hell, I watch both of them — but they also rely on a ton of basic tropes of storytelling and characters, and they do that because they have to: they need eyeballs to get advertisers to get renewed to get syndicated to make bank. Done and done. Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner can worry a little less about that.