Thanks to reader Zack for pointing me to this quote from Joss Whedon in his recent interview with Mo Ryan. The quote is about the difference between working for the WB/UPN and working for bigger networks, but it also sheds some light about why network TV goes through certain periods (like the late ’80s and parts of the ’90s) when it’s more open to weird ideas and approaches than it usually is.
Here’s the thing: I got to fly under the radar for eight years, on networks so magical that they no longer exist. … As soon as I came on to the radar, and started playing in the grownup world, with ‘Firefly’ and ‘Dollhouse,’ I started being treated the way every showrunner is treated. I did think, ‘I’ve had a track record, so they’ll get it.’ But there is no such thing as a track record. You toil and you toil and you argue and argue and you tear your hair out and go nuts and eventually you either retire, go mad or become powerful enough to make your own show. You say, ‘I am going to show them how it’s done!’ And that’s when you make ‘Cop Rock From Cincinnati.’
I’ve said before (it seems like I’m repeating myself a lot, but at least I’m not using the same words, and think of it as a running gag or catchphrase or something) that the WB was the perfect network for Joss Whedon, whose shows are too silly for cable and too strange for normal networks. But more than that, the presence of a new network often helps television get a little crazier. The new network is doing stuff that the established networks won’t do, which creates new opportunities for weird ideas and more competition for the services of show creators. Even creators who would have been unhappy taking their shows to the WB or Fox had the option of threatening to take their shows there if they didn’t get their way. Which helps to provide a partial explanation of why powerful showrunners got an unprecedented amount of power after the Fox network started up: either Fox would give James L. Brooks his way because they were so desperate to get him and the prestige of his name, or ABC would give that kind of power to some of their producers, to keep them from defecting to Fox or to cable. It’s not exactly a revelation, but more competition sometimes leads to more innovation.
Of course, eventually, the new, crazy, risk-taking network develops a formula of its own, expands its roster of executives, and looks for projects that fit the formula. Then the competition starts to die down, and the atmosphere is no longer condusive to risk-taking, because the networks lose their desperation: the new networks aren’t desperate enough to try anything that might work, and the old networks aren’t desperate to compete with the upstarts.