Elitism on Television

Well, if this isn't elitism, what is?

For the first time in more than a decade, a single network had all 10 of the highest-rated programs on TV last week. And, proving once and for all that you and everyone you know are completely, irreversibly out of touch with the wider TV-watching public, that network was somehow CBS.

“Well, sure, Big Bang Theory,” you mumble to yourself, confident that you have a weak but stable grasp on the actual shape of the world. But you’ve already forgotten the network’s top-rated show, NCIS, which has been on the air for 13 years of uninterrupted unsub-hunting, and which pulled in almost 17 million viewers last Tuesday. That’s followed by Big Bang, which laugh-tracked its way to 16.2, and the Republican debates, broadcast from the alternate universe where Donald Trump is considered a credible frontrunner for the leadership of the free world.

After that, there are two more NCIS shows, a venerable bright spot in 60 Minutes, and Madam Secretary. That’s right, Madam Secretary. Do you even know who’s in that, let alone what it’s about? You don’t, do you? You think it might be a blonde woman, but at this point, who can be sure which one? (It’s Téa Leoni, but we’re not saying whether we had to look it up.) But millions of people tune in to it every week, apparently, those same millions you share the roads and the supermarket aisles with every day. They’re all around you, watching Blue Bloods and Life In Pieces. And, as it’s becoming increasingly clear, what with the network’s total domination of this week’s ratings: they’re multiplying.

The problem here is that television ratings matter a lot less now. It's getting to be impossible to see how a free, over-the-air network can continue to put an hour of scripted television on the air each week and attract enough viewers to maintain the advertising revenue needed to stay afloat. But all the other networks aren't CBS, which is surviving in large part because it has figured something out about the viewing habits of older Americans. They like shows with strong female characters and reliable male supporting characters.

Basically, we're not quitting on network television like the other age groups. I watch two of the shows mentioned above, and they're okay, but not great. The really good television happens on pay cable networks or places like AMC, TNT, and FX. And I say that as someone who has watched every episode of Rizzoli & Isles on purpose. 

If you're not watching Rizzoli & Isles for Bruce McGill, you're wrong. He's one of the best actors on television and they don't give him enough to do. But, what they do give him is better than a star turn almost everywhere else. This is a show that should be on CBS because it follows exactly the same procedural arc found on all their shows. McGill portrays a character people are going to keep watching. And if you had told me that Donnie Wahlberg was going to become a stellar actor in his own right, I would have laughed at you. But, the fact remains that the other Wahlberg has more range than his more famous brother. They are surrounded by strong female characters and support them with their abilities. What's not to like?

It's all about the writing with these shows. It's better than expected and it sustains these shows, week after week. The business people have to figure out how to make this work, and they need to look at what CBS is doing in order to create and develop quality scripted dramas. CBS is putting a great deal of quality on the air. In my mind, CBS is doing exactly what TNT decided to do years ago.

You may not be thrilled with it, you may not see it as essential viewing, but the overall quality of their programming is much higher than it used to be and you can see that being used to full effect on Madam Secretary. The sets are high end, the production values are excellent, and the writing is smart and doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. I'm not thrilled with the show's inability to find anything for Tim Daly to do, but it's not as if the whole thing falls down like wet cardboard every week. Someone has figured out that people will watch quality shows. How hard is that to figure out?


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