Call it the "Golden Age of TV, Part 2." Small-screen entertainment, long considered inferior to the feature film, began commanding the same critical attention of its big-screen cousin right around the time Tony Soprano started therapy -- but now the buzz-worthy talents behind and in front of the camera can increasingly be found in a formerly unlikely place: cable.
The major broadcast networks, CBS, ABC, NBC, and now FOX and the CW, still compete primarily with each other for the lion's share of ratings and ad revenue, but the majority of critical attention and water-cooler moments has turned to the channels with a minority of viewers.
Over the last decade, cable networks have become the home of film stars such as Glenn Close, Kevin Costner, and Sigourney Weaver, who opt for risky writing over the exposure of network TV. When John Landgraf, president of FX, joined the net in 2004, "The Shield" was the only original series on its schedule. This year, there are 13. (Three of them, "Louie," "Wilfred," and Charlie Sheen's new comedy, "Anger Management," premiere June 28.)
Why is basic cable suddenly flourishing as a showcase for both big stars and unknown talent?
"In a way, the irony is that so much of cable's advantage comes from its lack of scale," Landgraf says. "We make a lot of money, and we're in 100 million homes, but there isn't that sense of having to fight to be number one. We can do our own thing."
Rather than chase ratings, many cable channels have spent their energy on building their brands. FX, AMC, USA, TNT, TBS, Comedy Central, and TV Land began adding original programming to their carefully curated lineups of live sports, syndicated reruns, and movies. The risk paid off.
AMC's "Mad Men," which launched its emergence as a cable network to be reckoned with, has taken home four consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series since its debut in 2007. A critical darling more than a ratings magnet until this year, "Mad Men" ushered in dramas such as "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," for which lead actor Bryan Cranston earned three consecutive Emmy Awards.
Unencumbered by being forced to fill 20-plus hours with original programming and able to operate on a separate schedule from the fall premieres and spring finales of network TV, cable channels don't have as much pressure to excite advertisers with a batch of new shows at their yearly upfront presentations. Freed from that burden, executives can be patient and picky and take a few more risks.
Nets such as FX and TV Land also get to skip the mania of pilot season. This year the five major networks produced nearly 100 comedy and drama pilots, most of which were cast in Los Angeles over a two-week span. But less than half of those shows were picked up to series. Some of the leftovers are now being considered for cable. Marc Cherry's new primetime soap "Devious Maids," for example, was picked up for a 13-episode season by Lifetime after ABC passed on the pilot.
"TV Land will make maybe three pilots and pick up two of them," says Collin Daniel, who, with casting partner Brett Greenstein, cast the network's multi-camera comedies "Hot in Cleveland" and "The Soul Man." "As an actor, your shot of getting on the air is a lot better than if you do a pilot at CBS, where they might make 15 comedy pilots and pick up two. TV Land will then take those two pilots that are picked up and promote the hell out of them and give all their attention to those two shows, because they don't have the sheer volume that a major network does."
Of the 11 pilots produced for FX during Landgraf's tenure, nine have gone to series, and all but two were picked up for multiple seasons. "I just don't think there's a broadcast channel that's anywhere near that kind of batting average," Landgraf says.
While executives at a ratings-starved network might cancel a floundering show early in its run, a cable channel tends to be more patient, letting shows find an audience, grow, and build buzz. "Ultimately for us, it's about backing writers and filmmakers," Landgraf says. "It's no secret: Great writing attracts great acting. Good actors want to go where the good material is, and they'll follow it anywhere."
Also acting as an attraction for actors is the typically shortened series orders of cable. Series such as "Mad Men," "Justified," and "Breaking Bad" each run approximately a dozen episodes per season, about half the number of a network sitcom or procedural. "For the person that wants to do a lot of different things, cable is really ideal," Landgraf says, "because it leaves actors plenty of time to do other things. It's much more freeing. And you have a much better chance of actually having a show stick for a long enough time that it's a stable place for you creatively and financially. The downside is that you're probably never going to reach the unbelievably lofty heights that the cast of 'Big Bang Theory' or 'Friends' might reach on a broadcast network."
The stars of "Mad Men" may never enjoy "Friends"-style ratings -- or salaries -- but actors are not automatically taking a pay cut to appear on a less-watched show.
"Scripted prime-time network and cable television both provide great work opportunities for SAG-AFTRA members, and minimums are the same, so actors working in television can have the best of both worlds," says Joan Halpern Weise, the SAG-AFTRA co–assistant national executive director for contracts.
Daniel and Greenstein add that although the minimum day rates are the same across broadcast and cable, actors on basic cable shouldn't expect to earn equivalent salaries in their annual contracts. But even network TV stars might not command the paychecks once pulled down by stars of "Friends" or "Will & Grace."
"The budgets of even the network shows aren't the same that they used to be," Daniel says, "so you can actually get ahead by doing cable."
Daniel Lehman is a staff writer at Back Stage. Follow him on Twitter: @byDanLehman