Small Cable — Bye Reality, Hello Scripted

Evans Ward/PictureGroup

No longer the domain of elite channels, scripted series dominated the TCA discussion.

Credit — or, as things are changing, blame — AMC.

Not long ago, only the big boys in cable had their own scripted fare; HBO and Showtime seemed to have unlimited cash for original programming. Eventually, FX rewrote the rules with The Shield, begetting a bevy of other series, but very few cable channels, especially those that fall into the “niche” category, had the ambition or money or structure to get into the scripted game.

And then AMC, out of nowhere, transformed itself from “that other classic movie channel” into a mighty presence of original programming. Mad Men kicked in the door, and Breaking Bad knocked it off its hinges. A reimagining of The Prisoner got some notice, and the thoughtful intrigue of Rubicon failed, though valiantly. Undaunted, AMC launched the instant hit The Walking Dead.

At some point, there must have been a lot of lunchtime meetings at other channels that emboldened programmers to seek the same kind of glory. After living off cheaper and easier-to-produce unscripted fare, safe niche brands suddenly wanted to branch out.

ABC Family? TV Land? MTV? CMT? Spike? Adult Swim? History? MTV?

Remember, this isn’t the cheap and easy route. Cable television is dominated by unscripted series precisely because of those two qualities. What niche player can afford to spend millions on a lone scripted series (plus the cost of promotion), only to see it face off against dominant broadcast networks and the bigger-fish cable channels?

Traditional thinking was that such David-like ambitions were folly, financial suicide. Besides, it took those bigger-fish cable channels a long time to find an audience for the shows they launched — and many are still struggling. But the allure must be proving too great of late because there’s an unprecedented influx of players taking the risk (or somebody’s printing money). TV Land president Larry Jones kicked off the Television Critics Association press tour Jan. 5 in Pasadena by gloating about Hot in Cleveland, and reports of new scripted series from niche outlets haven’t stopped.

Jones brought out the panel for Retired at 35 (starring George Segal and Jessica Walter). Later, CMT — formerly Country Music Television — talked up the sitcom Working Class (with Melissa Peterman and Ed Asner). TV One announced its first original scripted series, Love That Girl! (with Tatyana Ali and Phil Morris), followed by BET’s first foray with Let’s Stay Together and the revamped The Game (formerly of the CW). IFC, which already aired The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, unveiled Portlandia (and a commitment to more scripted fare).

With Starz already crowding the room as well (Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Camelot, Torchwood), is it any wonder TNT (Franklin & Bash, Falling Skies) and A&E (Breakout Kings) didn’t get much chatter going about their announcements? Maybe that’s why AMC didn’t raise many eyebrows with its new series The Killing. In the new world order of scripted, AMC is old-school.

Now comes the hardest part: avoiding the watered-down lameness so evident in some of these efforts (Hot in Cleveland). More doesn’t always mean better, especially if this onslaught is desperately stretching the writers pool. Already, the level of mediocrity at established outfits such as TNT and USA is off the charts (gritless “blue sky” series that have all the heft of Murder, She Wrote while trying for all the light glee of The Rockford Files).

Eventually, more to choose from becomes less of a delight and more of a burden for viewers. Culling the herd will be fun for critics.