Rumor has it that SciFi series Battlestar Galactica may be making its way to NBC. NBC is denying it, but it got me thinking: there’s no reason that cable TV can’t be like a farm system for television shows.
More and more, cable channels are creating original programming. The business model has been tested and it works. Because they’re on cable, they don’t take up the timeslot real estate, so the opportunity costs aren’t as high, and they pick up more money with DVDs (which are more costly than their network TV counterparts). All in all, it seems like a good place to experiment. Some, like The Shield, will never really be eligable for network TV. But I don’t see any reason why others, such as Monk, shouldn’t have any problem at all. (They did sort of put Monk on ABC, but only in reruns).
One of the problems that network television has is that it has no idea what people will watch. From what I understand, it’s almost a crapshoot figuring audiences out. Cable provides a great opportunity to have feelers.
So a show could start off on cable. If it does remarkably well there, as Battlestar has, and it’s not something too lurid for broadcast television, they can move the show to broadcast television, rerun the cable episodes on broadcast TV over the summer, and then let even those that don’t have cable enjoy the fun.
More importantly to me, though, it can work in the other direction, too. Sliders, for instance, was originally on broadcast TV. It had a fanbase, but not enough for its network to devote a timeslot to it. If I recall, it lasted longer on cable than it did on TV (although they did have a problem holding on to its cast).
A decade or so ago I ran across a show called Profit, starring Adrian Pasdar. Jim Profit was a rather psychotic businessman trying to work his way up the corporate latter. Yeah, it doesn’t sound that interesting which is why people never tuned in and it was cancelled before the first season was even finished. But the show was really, really good and I think it could have found a pretty natural smaller but more dedicated audience on cable. Another example would be American Gothic, which lasted an entire season before being cancelled. It had “cult status” written all over it.
The thing about “cult status” is that it now has a great business model! Particularly for something like Profit or American Gothic, where production costs are relatively low.
One other thing this would solve would be dangling storylines. If a new show has storylines that span more than an episode or two, it’s almost not worth giving it a shot because you don’t know whether or not the show will be around to have the loose ends satisfyingly tied up. Comic books actually have a similar problem: people don’t invest in new serials because new serials are always cancelled… so sales lag and its cancelled! This is something I believe that networks are going to have to address at some point. Pushing a show to cable would give the networks an opportunity to see if it can survive there or, if it can’t, provide at least some sense of resolution.
So this has sorta been happening, but I would really like to see it formalized somewhat. If the big networks are going to also own most of the cable channels, they should put it to better use.