This is a question I often get from readers, in one fashion or another: Why are cable shows so much better than the big networks' series? ¶ On the surface, the disparity makes no sense. Broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS and ABC have been making TV shows for nearly as long as television has existed. The budgets are so vast they can support a system for creating shows where more than 100 pilot episodes are shot to find the 30 or so that debut each fall.
Thanks to standouts such as ABC's Modern Family and Fox's Glee, comedy is a more even playing field.
But, as the TV Critics Association releases a slate of nominees for its own awards heavy on cable shows — just one broadcast nominee for best drama and kids show; no broadcaster among nominees for best new program — the question arises again.
Why is cable so good so often? Here are a few thoughts.
Cable shows make money two ways
I always tell fans that TV's most absurd circumstances can always be explained by looking at the dollar signs. In the world of cable TV, dollars come from two places: advertisements and a cut of the subscription fees paid to cable systems.
That means cable series can take more chances because they don't need huge audiences to make money. TNT sent a triumphant press release after its miniseries Falling Skies debuted June 19 to nearly 6 million people. The top broadcast series for that same week was America's Got Talent, with 12 million viewers.
Cable shows can focus on a niche
FX's original shows are smartly explicit and male-oriented, from The Shield and Sons of Anarchy to Justified (Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, above), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie and Rescue Me. Making a show that resonates intensely with a small group is a lot easier than trying to find something that appeals to a big crowd.
Audiences increasingly expect shows focused on what they like
One byproduct of the current media scene is that audiences expect television to reach them on their terms. Thanks to smart phones, iPads, YouTube and Hulu, fans can watch their favorite shows while waiting for the dentist or standing in the grocery store checkout line. And they expect to jack into shows that resonate directly with them, creating a favorable market for cable channels.
Cable channels aren't fined for obscenity
Ever wonder how Sons of Anarchy can get away with an unusually graphic rape scene, or how MTV's Skins can show a high school guy struggling with what is clearly an, um, significant state of personal excitation?
It's because the feds don't police cable channels for indecent content like they do the big broadcasters, making it easier to offer racy, compelling content.
The bottom line
So, difficult as it may be to feel sorry for broadcast executives earning seven-figure salaries, the odds stacked against them can be formidable. Whether they can break that pattern and come up with a new way to draw big crowds with substantive series just may be the key to the survival of the form itself.
It's a mystery that has sent me scrambling over to my home stereo and eventually placing phone calls to everyone from Bright House Networks to an NBC publicist.
Why does the audio for NBC's The Voice sound so odd?
While watching the show at home Tuesday, I noticed the sound for NBC's unscripted singing competition was hollow and strange — like a bizarre echo or reverb effect was placed on the entire audio track.
A recording of Tuesday's show on my office DVR sounded just as bad, and the problem resurfaced on Wednesday night's show. And here's where the mystery started. For days, no one would explain why it was happening. Or if it would happen again.
After bugging Bright House Networks, Verizon FIOS, NBC and local affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 for two days, the answer came late Friday afternoon from Tampa's WFLA.
"(NBC has) been having issues with the audio and have had complaints from stations and viewers across the country," wrote Cathy Helean, vice president of marketing for WFLA owner Media General's Florida Communications Group, in an e-mail.
"They say the issue was caused by the way the surround sound was mixed by the show's 'audio architect,' " Helean added. "NBC is making the request that the necessary changes be made to correct the situation for next week's show."
At a time when TV networks need more viewers than ever — especially NBC — it was unfortunate that it took so much badgering to get a relatively straightforward answer to an obvious issue.
There's a simple reason I was so persistent; I like the show, and its finale is this week, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday. The four finalists — bald rocker Beverly McClellan, bohemian singer-songwriter Dia Frampton, front-runner Javier Colon and pint-sized powerhouse Vicci Martinez — are all wonderful talents capable of amazing performances.
Sounds as if a fix is finally on the way. I hope so; otherwise, I'll be stuck watching the show online, free from sound issues, on a platform where WFLA and NBC won't make nearly as much money on me or viewers like me.