At the turn of the year 2011, we did the expected year-end review of what was exciting and disappointing over the past twelve months. In the process, something — I wouldn't have noticed just by considering my own selections — jumped at me when looking at the consolidated choices from the TV staff: almost everything worth praising in the drama category, from the shows themselves to actors and actresses performances, came from cable TV. If you have been following the gradual transformation of the TV landscape in the U.S. over the past few years, this might not come as a surprise, but it still made us wonder just how much 2011 had contributed to that general trend.
Some TV dramas are ubiquitous on the numerous lists extolling the best shows of the year 2011: Breaking Bad (AMC), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), Game of Thrones (HBO), Homeland (Showtime), and Justified (FX). You will find most of them on any given list from professional reviewers, almost always among the top 5. Besides being each of them compelling in their own very different ways, the most striking similarity among them is that they are all from cable channels.
Over the past year, premium cable channels have consolidated their positions as new forces to be reckoned with by adding more dramas to their line-ups. HBO rolled out its lavish production Game of Thrones, while Showtime introduced us to The Borgias and to an interesting story about terrorism and people in Homeland. The premiere of Game of Thrones drew 2.22 million viewers and its finale 3.04, while Homeland opened its season with 1.08 million viewers and concluded it with 1.71. Homeland shattered previous Showtime numbers for a new drama and Game of Thrones performed like no other genre show before on HBO. Starz tried to catch up with its brethren in 2011 by adding even more original content to its line-up (in the drama category) with Camelot, Torchwood: Miracle Day, and Boss. The success was not as resounding as the channel had hoped, but there was a decent amount of buzz and a faithful, even if not impressive, audience.
Basic cable channels also rolled out new productions here and there, and in spite of a few cancellations, the general tendency was toward more original drama content on cable overall. And although the numbers are not yet all out, everything seems to point to the fact that like previous years, broadcast networks have continued to lose audience to basic and premium cable, at a rate possibly faster in 2011 because of the increase of original content of the latter.
A few other things seem to substantiate that opinion. Most TV shows are deficit-financed and the traditional (read broadcast network) way of generating profit is by churning out enough episodes to be viable for syndication and by relying on international and other aftermarket sales. Because of a better reputation for quality backed by more investment per episode, broadcast networks used to performed much better in this model, but things have started to change in recent years. It turns out HBO's freshman series Game of Thrones is likely to fare much better in international markets than most if not all dramas produced in 2011, and even a relatively marginal series like TNT's Falling Skies has become an international sensation by appearing in more than 115 markets. The perspective of lucrative gains already introduced by earlier hits and now confirmed by series like Game of Thrones can only push the cable channels to produce more dramas.
In addition, as success begets success, the newfound reputation of cable dramas is attracting big names among producers and cast members. In 2011, stars like Claire Danes (Homeland), Jeremy Irons (The Borgias), Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), and David Strathairn (Alphas) have joined the likes of Glenn Close (Damages).
Finally, the shorter seasons (due in part to less influence from sponsors) and a relative freedom for show runners, ranging from nudity to profanity and the exploration of more daring subject matters, seem to have nurtured a creativity shift as well. It can be seen in the way ambitious projects like Camelot and Game of Thrones were readily adopted by cable channels. It can also be seen in the way copycat series or series trying to draw on the same atmosphere and setting (like The Playboy Club and Pan Am) have appeared on broadcast networks.