The Gaping Network Versus Cable Gap

Network television used to be a place where you could find an assortment of pretty good stuff, which was awesome when you had a television but couldn’t shell out for programming. As long as you could get the rabbit ears organised, so to speak, you were golden at least a few nights a week. There’d be something out there for you. And with the rise of online streaming, which the networks have taken to like fish to water[1. Although they appear to be having some trepidations now.], you could pick something up free the day after airing if you didn’t have a television, or missed it, or just didn’t feel like watching it in the regular time slow.

Increasingly, though, the good content seems to be migrating to cable. Looking over the shows I’ve been watching lately, and the things I’m most excited about, I’m seeing a lot of cable on that list, and not a lot of network shows. Cable is getting more bold, more daring, more aggressive, and a whole lot more interesting. I see cable execs willing to take risks that networks would blanch at, and those gambles are increasingly paying off, creating shows with quite the cult following.

Who would have guessed, for example, that a Prohibition-era costume drama would become such a smashing success? It’s not exactly the sort of thing that bubbles to the surface of your mind when you try to imagine a formula that would lead to a hit. And, of course, releasing Boardwalk Empire to network audiences might fall flat; it’s possible the show just wouldn’t have the draw that endless iterations of CSI do, and that it has relatively limited audience potential. But we don’t necessarily know, and while people are fond of deriding network fans for pedestrian tastes, I have more faith in them.

This rise of the best content on cable is something I’m acutely aware of as a television reviewer, and it’s something I think about when I’m discussing television shows. I feel a twinge when I recommend cable shows because I know that people have to pay for them, and pay a premium in some areas. I can rhapsodise about Boardwalk Empire all I like, but many viewers cannot access it; cable networks haven’t been as excited about the idea of providing their content for free in online streaming, which makes sense considering their business model, but makes things rough for a television reviewer who would like to try to be egalitarian, if not always succeeding at this.

People say that television is an opiate of the masses; around these parts especially I see the sentiment ‘kill your television’ on a lot of lips, and people are very self-righteous about all the television they don’t watch. Television, I am informed, rots your brain and will turn you into a wobbling, useless jelly, fit for nothing in life. Television is bad news bears, people tell me.

I don’t feel that way about television. I adore television. I think it’s a fascinating and very dynamic medium. Television is one of the best places to tell stories, and it’s one of the most widely consumed media, which means it is fantastic in its reach, and intriguing in its coverage. I like to look at the stories television is and is not telling, and how people respond to them, because it tells me something about society. And I love examining the potential of television not just as an entertainment medium, but as a messaging one. Television is very much about messaging, whether it’s anti-abortion storylines on almost every major network or a nod to disability rights on Breaking Bad.

And thus it frustrates me when people are deprived of good television by class divides. You can get books at a library if you cannot afford them. You might need to wait, but they will eventually become available, or you can pursue them through other resources. You can hear music for free on the radio. Television, though, straddles this strange divide between free and pay, and when the pay content is often substantially better, it’s irritating to me, as a reviewer. I hate it when people ask me what I’m really enjoying right now and it’s almost all premium cable shows. Fortunately PBS is still going strong or I’d be in trouble.

Reviewing isn’t necessarily about the availability of the medium, but the content. I’d argue, though, that talking about the divides that make it difficult to access some television is important. Just as I like it when reviews include accessibility notes; I like to know, for example, if a restaurant is accessible before I decide to spend my money there. I like to know if a film contains flashing sequences that might be a problem for a friend with epilepsy. It lets me know that the reviewer isn’t stuck in the mode of just thinking about the art, but also thinking about the consumer. Because reviews are written for the consumer, and just as consumers care about whether the content is worth consuming, they also care about whether they can consume it.

Now, of course. There are ways to watch television for free, and not necessarily illegal ones. It’s not like a recommendation to watch a cable show just immediately excludes a big chunk of readers. But it is another reminder of the barriers created in the world around us between the haves and the haves not. It’s ‘just’ television, but it’s more than that, it’s in the creation of paywalls for content that remind consumers that they are lesser if they cannot afford access.