Innovations, er, “Innovations” from broadcast networks — An introduction

Though I have been using it for more, this blog was primarily constituted for a course about the changes in what we refer to as “television.” Along with this blog, I am also working on a presentation/paper about the content and format innovations from “traditional” (read: broadcast) networks in this dynamic time.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some fairly in-depth research into not only what series the four majors — ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC — have aired, but also what “kind” of series. Thanks to The Futon Critic’s fantastic DevWatch and ShowWatch archives, I was able to go back five years to the 2005-2006 television season and determine every single series the broadcast networks have aired. From there, I researched each series to determine both the format and the “type” of characters the series (if scripted) showcased. After hours upon hours of scrolling, reading and entering into a five-tabbed, color-coded Excel sheet, I am both surprised and not surprised at what I found. Thus, I thought it would be nice to share some of my findings in this space with anyone who wants to read them.

But first, let me clarify a few of the statements or choices I mentioned above as a way to introduce the posts I’ll be writing in the next week or so about each network, because I know you’re asking the following questions. I’ll ask them for you.

Q1: Why start with the 2005-2006 season?

Great question. A few reasons. First, it was five years ago, meaning there has been enough time to make valid observations and analysis without seeming too short-sighted or ridiculous. It’s long enough to confirm past trends and find new ones while short enough to avoid being a confusing mass of data. But I also feel like that the season before was somewhat of a pivot point for the broadcast networks where tent-poles of the “old guard” went away and innovative content actually succeeded.

A number of the series that dominated popular culture and discussion in the decade’s latter half and continue to do so premiered during that season: Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, Veronica Mars and House. At the same time, a few of the series that served those ends in the first half of the decade or before ended in 2004-2005: Friends, Fraiser, The PracticeEd and HBO’s Sex in the City (though not a broadcast series, it helps my point. Kind of a cheat, sorry).

Thus, with all those developments a year prior, the aftermath is crucial to evaluate. I think most people could see the general differences — whether in aesthetic, storytelling, brand, style, etc. — between the first and second group of series. We know that the television industry, much like most others, is one of copycats. So did the successes in 2004-2005 alter the way the broadcast networks thought in the subsequent years? If so, how much? And did those influences play dividends? These are some of the questions I hope to address both in my project and in subsequent posts based on my research.

Q2: What do you mean by “type” of characters showcased? And why do that?

Another great question. You’re tough. By “‘type’ of characters showcased,” I refer to the general archetypes that the series builds around. For example, Law and Order predominantly features “Cops” and “Lawyers,” while Grey’s Anatomy features “Doctors.” Those are easy enough, but some series are tougher. What about Lost? Heroes? (Well, aside from “Idiots”).

I have done my best to create broad categories of characters that are found in all comedies and dramas, whether it is “Serial Group” (Lost, FlashForward), “Idiots” (Sons of Tuscon, Cavemen, any other show that highlights stupid men we’re supposed to laugh at) or “Girl Power” (Samantha Who?, Ugly Betty, any other show that is powered by a female lead and is told from their perspective).

And I’m doing this with all the scripted series as a way to gauge any innovations in storytelling when it comes to the representations of people we see. We all know about the slew of series in development each year that feature cops, doctors, lawyers and families, but how many actually make it to series? How many last? And what are some of the other character tropes the broadcast networks are relying on that we might not realize? With the awareness that these aren’t absolute categories, I hope to answer these questions.

Q3: Why does any of this matter?

I think I have hit on this as I’ve rambled on, but I will state things a bit more explicitly here. This research and these observations will hopefully matter because they will plainly lay out what has been happening with the broadcast networks over the past half-decade. We read all the stories about declining advertising revenue, sinking ratings, the death of certain genres or storytelling techniques, the scramble to monetize and the general worry over the future of broadcast. But does the rhetoric line up with reality? Has NBC’s last five years been as bad as we think? Has FOX’s run been as good?

Obviously, the results I will be presenting did not occur in a vacuum. Increased DVR and online use, furthered fragmentation and other external factors have altered the content and formatting decisions that the broadcast networks have made since the summer of 2005. However, the results could tell us how the networks have reacted to those external factors, whether positively or negatively, information that will be crucial moving forward as those external factors continue to have an impact.

Thus, with the information we already know compiled in one place, we might just learn a few things and be able to make solid analysis of  any development season, like the one we currently find ourselves in. We can see how networks have attempted to craft a solid brand and whether or not it’s actually worked. In the most hopeful of suggestions, this information could tell us things I am not even thinking of right now.

Q4: Are you done yet?

With this post, very close. I hope that this long-winded introduction to what will feature at least five more posts over the next handful of days. I will introduce and analyze content from each network individually, going in alphabetically order starting with ABC. For people in C411, this spoils my presentation. For the rest of you, I hope it entertains you and maybe even makes you think. Join me, will you?

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