Why TV Still Needs Mainstream Hits

The cancellation of Lone Star has touched off, in addition to the usual irritating snobbery, some discussion about whether there’s room for “risky” shows on broadcast TV, moving from there to the question of whether it matters — with so many good shows on cable, and with cable shows increasingly available online to the people who don’t have cable, is it really important where a good show runs, as long as it runs?

Leaving aside the question of how risky or good Lone Star was (we’ll never really know, since it didn’t run long enough), I think the answer is yes, even now, there is a need for great mass-entertainment shows, the kind that speak to the wide audience that only broadcast TV has access to. (Let’s remember, again, that the terrible numbers for Lone Star would be a huge viewership for all but a select few cable dramas. Even with audience fragmentation, broadcast still has a wider reach.) One reason for this is just the fun of the water-cooler effect. When a show combines broad popularity with quality, it becomes part of the shared cultural experience.

Yes, there are ways for a cable show to break into the cultural consciousness, though it’s sometimes debatable how much this happens. James Poniewozik says that “A show like Jersey Shore or Mad Men is arguably much more widely discussed, though not more widely watched, than NCIS,” but while that is true of Jersey Shore — largely because, like many reality shows, it penetrates into the gossip magazines and syndicated gossip shows, and therefore has reach far beyond cable television — I’m not sure how much of an impact Mad Men is really having, beyond those articles about a mild resurgence of interest in ’60s fashions. Its imprint on our cultural DNA remains small compared to, say, CSI, which completely changed and distorted the way we think about crime solving. Even something that’s widely mocked, like David Caruso’s one-liners, is a sign of a show that really reaches people; when a show is actually good, the mannerisms of the characters become almost the stuff of legend.

The other reason why there’s something special about a mainstream broadcast hit is that there are things they can do that no cable show can do. The most important thing, in my opinion, is the ability of mainstream mass-market television to have an impact on society; that’s the thing that many people have always celebrated and feared about TV, that it can reach so many people (who don’t have to pay for the shows themselves) and influence them. Not that TV can change attitudes alone. TV tends to take things that are already in the air — trends that the networks want to cash in on — and put them on the air. But by making TV shows about these things, Hollywood re-enforces them, making it harder for those trends to be turned back. That’s what the infamous Parents Television Council understands with its campaigns against “sinful” material on network TV: once attitudes become mainstreamed by TV, it’s hard to un-mainstream them.

Richard Nixon was another person who understood this, sort of; after All In the Family started, he and his aides spent several minutes in the White House discussing an episode they’d seen, with Nixon worrying that “the box” would influence kids to be more tolerant of homosexuality, while his aides seemed more worried that it was making conservative Nixon-loving hard-hats out to be idiots. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, liberals point out that TV has contributed to hard-line attitudes toward crime — since there has hardly ever been a TV hero since the ’60s who acts as if suspected criminals have any rights — and that 24 gave audiences, and even Supreme Court justices, an example to point to when they wanted to argue for the necessity of torture. It’s not that seeing Jack Bauer single-handedly turns people’s attitudes around; it’s just that he was on TV every week, he was widely known, and he was a more potent argument for certain ideas and attitudes than any newspaper editorial could ever be.

So a TV show that reaches large audiences, and broad audiences, has a power that niche shows don’t. The Wire was a great show, and one that wanted to get people angry and make them question their attitudes and preconceptions. But it could never have the kind of power it hoped to have — the power that gets ordinary people everywhere arguing about the ideas presented, or Presidents worried that it will change people’s attitudes (President Obama likes The Wire, but unless some tapes come out, I doubt he sits around worrying about its impact on society). Because not many people watched it, it had an unforgettably powerful impact on those who did watch it, but not much success in bringing about social or political or cultural change. Whereas a show like Will & Grace — a compromised, censored, mainstream entertainment — may have had genuine social impact simply by helping to mainstream the idea that gay people were normal. It didn’t create today’s slowly-increasing acceptance of gay rights among younger people, but like all mainstream hits, it both followed a trend and helped drive it.

This is not a knock on The Wire, because that show could never have been what it was on a broadcast network, not artistically. But if a creator wants to use the power of television to shape the culture or promote ideas, then broadcast is usually the place for it. (Not that cable can’t help, of course — for example, not many people watch cable news, but by promoting certain ideas and viewpoints, it feeds into and helps shape the coverage on the more-widely-watched broadcast and local news.) Cable is the perfect place for internal psychodrama or the exploration of questions about human life and human identity: Breaking Bad is a perfect cable show because, while it is in part about the modern world and the problems that we face every day, it’s primarily about examining one man falling apart under extraordinary circumstances.

The great broadcast shows can be about people, and about ideas, but many of them are also about trends, attitudes, modern life as we live it. All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H were all about what was going on in the world right at that moment, in the early ’70s (yes, M*A*S*H was set in the ’50s but it wasn’t trying to fool anybody). Even a show as completely frivolous and cheesy as Charlie’s Angels presented itself as being a response to social changes in its era: depending on what you wanted to read into it, it was either about women using their sex appeal to be empowered, or a retreat back into the good old days when women took orders from men. Look at the current broadcast hits — the prodedurals, the comedies, whatever Glee is — and you’ll find a lot of topicality even if the references are not topical. Ripped-from-the-headlines stories, investigations into murders that take place in carefully-chosen, recognizable situations, reflections of our anxiety about technology or family life or romance; this is the stuff of the broadcast hit. It doesn’t try to dig deep into the human psyche like cable often does, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the externals of daily life, the stuff we can recognize from our experience or our neighbours’.

Is broadcast TV doing all it can do within its limitations? Of course not, and that’s why even people who mostly watch cable should want broadcast TV to do better, because cable simply can’t pick up the slack. Shows that bring socio-political issues into a wide range of homes, shows that reflect back on life as it is currently lived and challenge us to re-examine the mundane details of life, and just plain fun shows that everyone at the office seems to be watching; these are what broadcast can give us at its best. Cable TV can give us a great artistic experience at its best — but broadcast TV can change the world.

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