Neal Patrick Harris' nifty opening musical number for last Sunday's Emmy Awards ceremony got some polite laughter for daring to rhyme "boob tube" and "Tony Shalhoub," but his extended plea to viewers to "put down the remote" undercuts the dismal apprehension that has paralyzed the major networks ever since Tony Soprano strangled Fabian Petrulio. Hamstrung by advertisers and the FCC, the Big Four have been preparing for what they believe is the Cathode Ray Day of Reckoning, when cable programming, the internet, and the death of all those old people who watch The Ghost Whisperer inevitably bring about the collapse of broadcast TV.
It's certainly easy to get that impression. This year's Emmy winners for Drama and Miniseries all went to shows playing on basic or pay cable channels, with stations not previously known for original programming like AMC coming on strong with excellent, intelligent offerings like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Between the approximately eleventy bazillion satellite and digital cable channels, the ascent of TiVo, and the fact that many producers still consider Mama's Family the alpha and omega of situation comedy, it would seem a network executive Jonestown is just around the corner.
But don't start mixing that Kool-Aid just yet, Jeff Zucker, because in my exhaustive research on the matter (a marathon Hulu viewing session broken up by frequent drunken crying jags) I've discovered three areas in which network television is superior to its counterparts.
1. Too Much Is Never Enough -- Is one measly night of So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing with the Stars not enough for you? Were you one of the hapless millions who loved Jay Leno but just couldn't bring yourself to stay up 'til the ungodly hour of 10:30 to watch him? You're in luck, because this season will see five nights a week of primetime Leno and multiple installments of your favorite dance-related reality shows. And as we all learned when ABC aired Who Wants to Be a Millionaire four nights a week in 2000, this strategy never ever backfires.
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2. Laugh Trax -- Admit it, when checking out Weeds or Flight of the Conchords or Entourage you sometimes don't know when it's appropriate to laugh (especially with Entourage). The problem is even worse when you're enjoying one of these shows in the company of friends or that special someone. Chuckle at an inopportune moment and you could find yourself shunned from future viewing parties. Fail to laugh when everybody else does and they'll take every chance to talk behind your back about how you don't "get it." That's why we're so lucky to have shows like Two and a Half Men and New Adventures of Old Christine, which not only prompt us to laugh appropriately with canned guffaws, but also recycle the same situations and gags from 30 years ago just to be sure.
3. Crime Pays -- I was as surprised as anyone to discover that the most popular form of entertainment in America isn't football, or "Shark Week," or binge eating, but rather the police procedural drama. How else to explain the existence of three C.S.I.s, three Law and Orders, and -- coming this season -- NCIS: Los Angeles (presumably to fill up the two hours of the USA Network's schedule not already occupied by reruns of the original)? There's also Bones, The Mentalist, Numbers, and Criminal Minds. And yet how good can they be? After all, not one of these characters drives a striped Gran Torino or has a pet Cockatoo.
So as we can see, there's plenty of life left in the netrworks. Between the things I've listed above, the continued presence of David Hasselhoff, and the maddening unwillingness to develop programming that offers examples of realistic communication or updated plot devices, I think it's pretty clear that broadcast television is a shining example of a successful business model, and one that will remain sustainable indefinitely.
Just like the recording industry.