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Each TV Network Does Dramas Differently: Here's How

by Terry Curtis Fox
June 5, 2014 6:30 AM
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Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke of HBO's 'Girls'
Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke of HBO's 'Girls'
Claire Danes in "Homeland"
Claire Danes in "Homeland"

Thirty years ago, when I began writing episodic television, there were network dramas and syndicated shows. These days, when I’m teaching one-hour drama, that single catch-phrase encompasses everything that fits the time slot. But the explosion of different outlets means that one-size no longer fits all. Each type of network behaves differently. What follows is a taxonomy of the four major kinds of networks and how their shows differ from those on other kinds of networks.

A few necessary caveats:

I’m generalizing here. You’ll find counter-examples. I can find them, too.

No human being can watch everything good – much less everything – on TV today. I’ve left out an entire class of network – the blue-sky network – mainly because I’m not as familiar with what goes on there. As for the networks I do discuss, I’m drawing on the shows I’ve been watching in some depth. There are others, many others.

There are shows and networks discussed below where I’ve worked with the creators and executives and those with creators and execs I’ve never met. While I’ve written and produced for more than a few of the networks, I haven’t for any of the specific shows cited. 

HBO and Showtime:

It is TV (despite the brilliant advertising slogan). It’s just a different kind of TV and not because of tits and “fuck.” (Twenty years ago, this was the first advice one got before pitching the premium networks: do not say your show was blank with tits. This would get you bounced out of the room.)

Game of Thrones, Joffery

The reason premium cable changed television was because they were dependent upon subscribers, not advertisers. The implications of this are profound: unlike all the other networks, HBO and Showtime don’t care how many people are watching any given show. And they don’t care if, after "Game of Thrones," you watch "Silicon Valley."  The moment you subscribed, they made their money. They are after an aggregated audience, not the largest audience in any time slot.

HBO doesn’t care if I watch "Girls"; it was designed to get young women to subscribe. My viewing is a bonus. And they don’t care if the "Girls" audience watches "Looking." That show is designed to get the gay male audience to subscribe. Falloff from one show to the other doesn’t really matter.

The artistic implications of this are, in and of themselves, enormous. Luckily for HBO, Showtime, and, most of all, us, the rise of the premium cable channels coincided with the DVR and the advent of streaming. 

The oft-repeated notion that premium cable is the turn-of-our-century 19th century novel is a direct result of the confluence of these two factors. "Homeland," "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Nurse Jackie" – none of them need to end a story within a single episode. They are written the way Trollope wrote – each season contains the complete story rather than each episode, but you do best if you watch the entire series just as Trollope’s series novels are best understood if read in order.

'The Sopranos'
'The Sopranos'

Each of those series (as well as "Girls," "Looking," and "Boardwalk Empire," among others) fit a television genre. "Nurse Jackie" is a hospital show; "The Wire" a direct descendent of "Hill Street," "St. Elsewhere," and "Homicide." But because the premium networks have no fear of pissing off part of the audience – in fact, because they are selling the notion that you are paying to see something you can’t see on advertiser supported networks – they reinvent the form. "Nurse Jackie" tells us in its title that this is about support staff, not heroic doctors. And, of course, it’s about a nurse and mother who is a drug addict. It’s also a dramatic half-hour, albeit one that clocks in at 28 and not 22 minutes. A beautiful form. "The Wire" refuses to tell us what side we’re rooting for. And while there were corrupt cops on "Hill Street," they were never our cops. On "The Wire," they were leads.

The lack of commercials also means that the sign-posting used on all advertising sponsored programming – the visible act break, also a common element in live theatre – is missing. That means that while the overall story-telling is novelistic, each episode is written in the same manner as a movie – the audience must be given subtle hints as to where they are in the story. 

But most of all, the need for an aggregate and not a mass audience allows HBO and Showtime to cast differently. Much was made of this when "The Sopranos" first appeared: had the show been on NBC, James Gandolfini would never have been Tony Soprano. (And I doubt that Edie Falco would be Carmella – which means, no "Nurse Jackie".) On a traditional broadcast network, Carrie Mathison would still be blond – but she might not be Claire Danes. You cannot imagine a naked Lena Dunham on anything but a premium channel. Premium networks cast the best actor; advertising networks cast the prettiest one. 

"Boardwalk Empire"
HBO "Boardwalk Empire"

There is one major distinction to be made between HBO and Showtime (and, for that matter, all other networks, including Netflix): in an HBO series, place is of utmost importance, as central to the series as any character. ("Game of Thrones" and "Boardwalk Empire" are exceptions, of course, because one is fantasy and the other period.)

"Homeland" spent three seasons in Charlotte, NC; "House of Cards" shoots in Baltimore; "The Americans" is often visibly New York; all three merely visit DC. 

HBO, meanwhile, makes distinctions within a metropolitan area: "Sex and the City" was not merely Manhattan but specific neighborhoods suited to the characters; Girls is "Brooklyn"; "The Sopranos," New Jersey. Detroit was essential to "Hung"; "Treme" was as about New Orleans as 'Entourage" was about L.A. 

HBO shows are as rooted in specific parts of the American landscape as the New Wave was anchored in France (particularly Paris) and neo-realism to its regional Italian settings. These are hardly the first TV shows to be shot on location, but HBO is the first network to make this commitment (thanks, of course, to its enormous cash flow). And it makes a difference. We sense it, we feel it, we know it. It affects the writing, the casting, every aspect of the show.

Netflix and Amazon

When Netflix released all thirteen episodes of the first season of "House of Cards" at once, it didn’t just institutionalize binge viewing; it created a literal telenovela, a series that wasn’t like a novel – it was a novel. 

Premium networks basically have two discrete audiences: ones who subscribe and watch week by week and those who wait for the series to be released on DVD or, well, Netflix or Amazon, and then binge. This means that (like Dickens and Conan Doyle’s readers) the shows must be satisfying on an episodic basis while still propelling forward like a novel. 


  • saima | July 23, 2014 9:03 AMReply


  • John Luma | June 9, 2014 12:55 AMReply

    Food for thought, to be sure. The one broadcast network drama that had a few pretty people and a lot of great actors, writing and producing was, of course, THE WEST WING. With more nudity and swearing, it could have been a standout as well on HBO or any other premium showcase. Just awesome TV on every level. And we got to savor it for seven 22 episode seasons.

  • lee | June 6, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    Great piece.

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 4:31 PMReply

    "Given the choice between a great actor with an odd look and a very good actor with a traditional look, the broadcast networks go old school. ("Law and Order" and "Good Wife" temper this by drawing on New York stage actors for secondary roles.)"

    Are you implying that Julianna Marguiles is an example of a good but not great actor with a traditional look? I think she's as good or better than many actresses on premium cable.

  • Terry Curtis Fox | June 6, 2014 10:49 AM

    I specifically cited Marguiles as an example of an established star. What's instructive is how she got to be a star -- as originally written (and shot), Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER. After the show was tested, she was resurrected. (Same thing happened with Hill and Renko on "Hill Street.") What that meant, of course, was that when Marguiles was cast, they were not casting a lead. That meant that John Wells and Christopher Chulack had a lot more leeway with NBC than had she been conceived as a lead. I wish I could say that after this fortuitous casting, NBC realized that a first-rate, ethnic, brunette was great casting. Nope. NBC still preferred blonds.
    (And just to be clear -- there are certainly more than a few first-rate actors who also have a traditional look. It's not mutually exclusive. It's a question of what is given the most emphasis.)

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 1:59 PMReply

    "Thirteen episodes is a lot more comprehensible both for the viewer and the writers. For one thing, while you can write thirteen great episodes, you can’t manage twenty-two. There are going to be ups and downs. And thirteen is about the limit if you want to tell one large story (which is what both Netflix series to date do). It allows longer pre-production time and more lead time in the writing. That lead time allows show runners to write more complete episodes. (It also meant that traditional exclusivity agreements had to be renegotiated in the current WGA contract, but that’s for a business story, not this taxonomy.)"

    I find 13 episodes to be a little too short when a show has a large cast with multiple storylines.

  • Terry Curtis Fox | June 6, 2014 10:57 AM

    In the days of 39 episode seasons (I am exhausted just imaging this), much of the writing was done by freelancers. Most shows had no "memory" -- take a look at the excellent "Johnny Staccato" -- one week he's got a girlfriend, the next he doesn't, and there's nothing made of it. It was a different world.

    My point is that the more episodes you have to produce, the more likely you're going to have highs and lows. Even Beethoven wrote "Wellington's Victory." But I should also note that when you are writing while the show is airing, you have an absolute limit in the number of days you can shoot. And that affects the writing -- it takes a lot less time to shoot one two-page scene than four half pages. When you have an air date to meet, even a larger budget doesn't buy you the time to shoot shorter scenes with more coverage.

  • cadavra | June 5, 2014 6:00 PM

    Not to mention in the old days, networks did 39 episodes a season and they were generally excellent on the whole. Of course, back then shows weren't being made by 20-something comic-book readers.

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Cable is not without flaws. On average cable has less women onscreen and behind the scenes.

  • Mike | June 5, 2014 10:28 AMReply

    You hit the nail on the head with this article. I'm honestly tired of most network television. The Good Wife, Hannibal Once Upon a Time and Castle are the only shows they off that I watch.

    Hannibal is an HBO show on network television and is easily it's best show. The multi-layered writing, storytelling amazing acting, set design and the overall artistic ambience that surrounds the show makes it a top 5 show among all shows. I even have a podcast for it (Hungry for Hannibal Podcast). So give it a watch because I doubt you will be dissapointed.

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