Veteran TV analyst Steve Sternberg makes an excellent point on what is successful and what isn't in broadcast and cable. The most glaring example is that Fox's "Lone Star" pulled in more viewers than "Mad Men" -- yet "Lone Star" was an obvious and quick failure. How is that?
Low 1.2 to 1.3 ratings among 18-49 viewers at a broadcast network are nothing to write home about. So "Lone Star" was ridden out of town. But "Mad Men" posts 18-49 and 18-34 numbers about half that of "Lone Star."
Yet both shows have something in common: Critics liked them.
"Mad Men" averages around 2 million viewers like many other cable dramas, which may pick up even 3 million or 4 million viewers on the likes on TNT, USA, Lifetime, and FX. But on a broadcast network show these show would also be thrown on the failure heap.
Are we better consumers for having those cable shows? Are marketers better for it? Both groups would say yes.
Cable's financial arrangement is the key difference between its shows and those on broadcast: TV consumers' monthly payments to cable operators that in turn go to cable networks. For the most part, broadcast networks don't have any of this. This is what growing retransmission fees -- as well as those threatened blackouts, angry network and cable operator advertising -- are all about.
So the Fox network -- as well as CBS, NBC, ABC, CW, and other broadcast entities -- want extra dollars so that in five years time, a critic's favorite like "Lone Star" might be allowed a little more time to figure out its problems and continue to air.
It's been said many times, a show like HBO's "The Sopranos" would have been a dismal failure on the networks for its then-low ratings (in contrast to broadcast dramas). But had it been on, say , NBC -- and pulled in say, 8 million viewers at the time -- we'd probably be blaming the content as well.
"Lone Star" had low numbers and some unsettling content:the protagonist ends up marrying two wives, and tries to bilk money from poor people.
Forget about "Lone Star" for the moment. What about "Pushing Daisies," "Jericho" and "Dollhouse" -- three shows core fans and critics seemed to like a lot?
Maybe "Lone Star" would have really sucked anyway. But future broadcast networks want more than two episodes to figure that out. They want what cable networks want -- better financial stability and the ability to keep different kinds of programming around. Retransmission fees? Every little bit helps.