Tim Goodman's TCA Journal No. 5: Safe and Familiar Is the Best Way Forward for Struggling Broadcast Networks

Broadcast networks should give the masses what they want (even if they don't know they want it): a break from the darkness, complexity and overwhelming choice of cable offerings.
Patrick Wymore/The CW
Memo to broadcast networks: If you can't be one of the best, like "Jane the Virgin," be one of the easiest to digest.

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be filing a series of journals from the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, looking at the bigger picture, unspinning the spin or crushing the life out of things.

If you haven't noticed yet, you will: Broadcast networks and the people who run them are flaunting a positive, sunny disposition in the face of years of doom-and-gloom talk from critics and TV industry reporters — and that newfound rosiness is only the latest near-brilliant example of spin from people who could teach political operatives a lesson or seven.

I still prefer a good "Things are pretty bleak but we're finding our way around this muck" over "It's not nearly as bad as everyone says," but I also don't blame those who take this latter route. If there was a guy on the deck of the Titanic talking about the ship going down but also saying how other ships elsewhere are going down as well and the water's not as cold as imagined — yeah, he'd be pretty unpopular.

Spin is inherent at the network television level — great years or leap (off the building) years — it's going to be there. We're used to it.

But there is one very positive tactic the networks as a whole seem to be employing: They've stopped trying to be cable channels and started programming for the masses. Now, everyone at every network would probably tell you this is what they've always done. But the truth is a copycat business is always looking around for inspiration, and when all the hip cable dramas were dark and dense and winning all the Emmys and gaining all the critical acclaim, the nets tried to mimic that style.

But everybody is doing that in the cable world and that is, make no mistake about it, a huge problem for people who run cable channels. Everybody wanted in the scripted game and in short order that turned into an excess of options and a viewing audience as overwhelmed and confused as a tosspot, corn-fed bear that wandered into L.A. traffic.

It's not pretty on the cable side. The winnowing is beginning.

So it's smart for broadcast networks — which have seen deep and damaging cuts to their total audience and sellable demo for years now — to revert to selling the masses what the masses traditionally buy.

Easy stuff. Digestible things. Familiarity. Comfort.

For the most part, networks have already started making shows that are either based on existing franchises — 24: Legacy, The Blacklist: Redemption, Chicago Justice, The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon, MacGyver, Prison Break, Riverdale (Archie Comics), Taken, Time After Time, Training Day — or are otherwise cranking out patently familiar shows viewers have seen hundreds of times before, with famous and safe faces leading most. Very rarely is there a show — particularly a drama — that indicates a network taking a big swing with high-concept or high-risk.

And honestly, in 2016, that's the right strategy. At best, a broadcast network should be 80 to 90 percent safe before trying an outlier that might go over big but will more than likely eat up an ad budget before imploding.

I'm not saying that any of those shows listed above will be successful, regardless of how networks are spinning what's considered "successful" these diminished days. I'm just saying they have the best chance.

Safe = survival. It's not what I'm looking for as a critic, of course, but I haven't looked to network television for high-quality dramas in ages. If one or two pop up — like Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Jane the Virgin, etc., great. Unexpected greatness is always welcome.

Comedy, however, is where broadcast networks excel. There's plenty of greatness to be found there. And there has been for years. That's where I want experimentation, uniqueness. That's where I find the quality.

Also, when there's too much of one thing, audiences will seek out something different. Cable and digital outlets have been making America think really hard about plots, motives, shifting morality and ambiguous endings for a long-ass time now — a little easy relief is nice over on broadcast. Translation: If getting noticed in this insane content glut is essential to survival, then presenting something audiences have noticed previously isn't a bad play.

If the "Too Much TV" Platinum Age of television has taught us anything, it's that the paralysis of viewers having to decide which of the 79 brilliant and binge-ready series to watch has opened up a window of opportunity for broadcast networks touting familiar, middling, entertaining offerings that can be digested in about an hour.    

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