‘Buffy,’ ‘Angel’ and modern-day cable

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ran seven seasons and its spin-off show, “Angel,” ran a too-short five. Both aired on what were considered “mini” networks, The WB and The CW, but networks nonetheless with obligations to meet the standards of broadcast networks and bring in some semblance of traditional over-the-air ratings.

But we can only dream about how those Joss Whedon series as well as his “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” series might have faired if they had aired on channels that were decidedly off-network.

I’m thinking of TNT, FX, USA, AMC and A&E, channels – not networks, since networks are networks of stations, while cable channels have no physical presence out in the real world – that schedule, carry and nurture high-quality episodic drama.

Can you imagine “The Shield” or “Mad Men” or even “Falling Skies” on network TV?

I can’t. I can’t imagine those niche shows pulling enough viewers to stay on the air. “Firefly” sure didn’t.

I can’t imagine the networks allowing the creators of those shows to produce as few as 10 or 12 or 16 episodes per season, something that’s become routine with shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.”

There seems to be less pressure without a 22-episode, big network season. Less expectation of Super Bowl-sized ratings. Less expectation of quickly meeting the 100-episode threshold for syndication.

With those shorter seasons, you can weed out the deadwood episodes. Okay, some of us were a little impatient with how long last season’s “The Walking Dead” spent on the farm. But it didn’t have to be that way. Look at last season’s “Mad Men” as an example. While the season had its critics, I thought almost every episode was riveting. Would that have been the case if the creators had been compelled to turn out twice as many episodes to fill out a network season?

Who doesn’t think “Smallville,” for example, would have been better with about a half-dozen fewer episodes per season and a little less filler? How about “Lost?”

There are some drawbacks. Out of sight, out of mind. “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” took their time and sometimes a year or even more passed between seasons. It was torture but it made us look forward to their return even more. That trick wouldn’t work for every show, however.

And admittedly, there’s still less visibility on cable, at least for some audiences. We live in a world where the biggest ratings are still garnered by standard network fare like cops-and-robbers procedurals. We can take solace in knowing that we’re cooler because we know all about “Justified.”

So in my alternate reality TV word, “Buffy” and “Angel” and “Firefly” are still chugging along, well  into the double-digits in years on the air. They’re just airing fewer episodes and every episode is greeted with a sense of anticipation and celebration.

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