“So many people are not watching in real time,” Mittell said.
Developing new dramas for broadcasters is difficult, but it’s not impossible. “The Following” on Fox and “Revolution” on NBC indicate that even stories that stretch from week to week can work if done right. Critics love ABC’s “Nashville.” ‘’Downton Abbey” is PBS’s top-rated drama ever, and its success also shows the technology-fueled hallmark of a modern show: People are catching up with the series at their own pace, between seasons, so there’s a built-in larger audience when the show returns for a new season.
CBS has a reliable machine for developing new dramas, particularly crime procedurals, that appeal to its audience. “The Good Wife” is one of those rare broadcast dramas that excites critics as much as cable fare such as “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.”
“Frankly, I think it’s a great time for scripted television,” said Jeffrey Stepakoff, a television scriptwriter and professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Yet broadcasters are hurt by the pervading sense that, on a regular basis, cable is now the first choice for quality. That’s reinforced at awards shows: Except for Maggie Smith’s supporting actress award for “Downton Abbey,” broadcasters were shut out at this year’s Golden Globes. The last broadcast program to win the Emmy for best drama was Fox’s “24” in 2006.
TV critic David Bianculli said he often records several episodes of new broadcast dramas, waiting to see whether it looks as if the show will stick around before wading in, though he says, “I hate feeling that way.”
“Broadcast television has incrementally but increasingly insulted the intelligence of the audience,” said Bianculli, editor of the TV Worth Watching Web site and a teacher of film and TV at Rowan University. Cable shows “are getting smarter and more complex all the time.”
In seeking the best creative minds, broadcast networks have always had the advantage of reach: No cable show gets the nearly 20 million viewers that “NCIS” draws for each new episode. Many cable networks would have been delighted with the “Zero Hour” audience that ABC found wanting. Those distinctions may be slowly breaking down, too: Only four broadcast dramas had more viewers than AMC’s “The Walking Dead” two weeks ago, and the horror show often wins among younger viewers.
Don’t think Fox executives didn’t notice that successful series when they gave the go-ahead to “The Following,” or NBC with its upcoming drama on Hannibal Lecter.
Broadcasters are in the midst of their annual rite of spring, reviewing pilots to determine which will become series over the next year, an exercise with the same hope of crocuses pushing through a layer of snow.
They only hope that television viewers will notice their work.
— Associated Press