Donal Logue (right) and Michael Raymond-James star in Shawn Ryan's private-eye series Terriers, which recently debuted on the FX cable network.
Today on All Things Considered, I'll be talking about the differences between cable and broadcast network dramas, with lots of help from producer Shawn Ryan, whose creations include The Shield and Terriers on cable, and The Unit and Lie To Me on broadcast networks.
(He's also the creator of Ride-Along, a show that will be arriving on Fox in midseason. I've seen the first episode, and it's very, very good.)
When I talked to Ryan, he had a lot more to say than we were able to use in the radio piece, so please enjoy some additional thoughts from Shawn Ryan that came up during our discussion.
On the likability of characters:
In order to appeal to a wider audience on network in order to survive, generally your characters need to be, at a base level, a little bit more likable. Certainly at cable -- a place where a character like [The Shield's] Vic Mackey can thrive, or Tony Soprano, or any of the characters in Deadwood or things like that -- you have more leeway in investigating their flaws.
On whether different standards for language and content make a difference:
I've worked in network and cable on and off for a number of years, and you just understand what your parameters are. A lot of times, I think the best work that my team has come up with comes from having to deal with certain boundaries. On FX, there were certain words that we weren't allowed to say -- we were able to push it farther than the networks did, but it didn't stop us from telling the stories we wanted to tell, even though we couldn't use the F-word, for instance. That didn't stop us from being as gritty as we wanted to be.
On whether broadcast television might try shows with shorter seasons, like they do on cable:
I think they will. There are certain economics involved in making a network TV show that you want to amortize the costs of that, so the more episodes you make, the cheaper they all are individually. So there's going to be pressure to do the 22- and 24-episode season. But I think they're open to doing less. [Lost was] able to negotiate 16-episode seasons, and that seemed to work for that network and those creators.
There will always be economic pressure to make hits, identify hits, and then exploit hits. And you're going to exploit them with as many episodes as you probably can.
On whether cable is more creative about the look and feel of a show than broadcast, where (for instance) lots of cop shows look alike:
I'm not sure whether there's something on the broadcast level that puts pressure [on creators] to make things seem very familiar. It could be. I haven't necessarily felt that pressure myself, but when I see a lot of shows on the broadcast networks, sometimes they do strive for a certain familiarity that they hope will remind people of something that was a hit for them in the past. But I can tell you that the broadcast network executives that I've dealt with, they do care very much about the look of a show, the sound of a show. They want to be distinct; sometimes it's just harder.
On the additional pressure to pick up shows on broadcast as opposed to cable:
The cable networks have the advantage of developing fewer shows, and they don't have to put new shows on if they don't think they have anything ready. I remember last year, there was a story about how Showtime had developed four different shows, and they picked up none. They just felt that none of those shows were right for them at that moment. Whereas a broadcast network has those hours that they have to fill. And they're going to pick stuff up. And every year, every network picks up one or two things that they secretly know isn't very good, that they know is going to fail, but they just have a slot to fill.
On the reduced ratings pressure that new shows experience on cable:
We know that we're going to have our 13 episodes air on Terriers on FX, and we know that we'll be judged on that, and the network will make a decision on whether to pick it up. ... we know that we're going to get to air all 13, and we know that we're going to have a chance for word of mouth to build. We had some really nice reviews of the show, and hopefully people will catch up to it. And by the time those 13 air, hopefully we'll be up to a point ratings-wise where it makes sense for FX to bring us back.
On the broadcast networks, it's routine that if you're not doing what they want you to do ratings-wise after two or three episodes, you'll get pulled, which is a big change from 30 years ago.
My favorite show, and the show that made me want to become a TV writer was Cheers, and Cheers was, if not the lowest-rated show, maybe the second lowest rated show in all of network television its first season. But NBC was patient and kept it on and they believed in the show creatively, it ended up winning the Emmy for best comedy that first year, and once NBC launched Family Ties and The Cosby Show on Thursday night, Cheers got pulled up with that and ultimately became a huge, huge hit.
But if Cheers launched with those numbers in today's environment -- relative numbers, even a lower-rated show in 1982 would be a high-rated show now -- but relatively, a show like Cheers wouldn't survive. And it will survive on cable. You've made the episodes, they're going to air, and you have a chance to find an audience. But you've only got 13 weeks to do it.
On managing an audience that doesn't see every episode:
You have a slightly less loyal audience in network than you do on cable. They'll show you numbers -- and this is true of cable, but I think it's more true of network -- that people who describe themselves as fans of your show on average only watch one out of every three or four episodes of your show. On cable, it's a little bit higher -- the people who watch The Shield tended to usually watch The Shield. But on a show like Ride-Along, we have to plan for the fact that when our third episode comes on the air, most of the people watching that night will have never seen the first two episodes. And so it affects how you craft your stories, it affects what information you give to your audience.
Because when you live your life making a TV show, you're very familiar with these characters, you understand every motivation that they have, you understand everything that happened in previous episodes, and it's easy to forget that your audience has very busy lives as well, and they don't have a doctorate in your show.