The era of niche TV

Does (audience) size matter?

In February of 1983, the finale of M*A*S*H got 106 million viewers, making it the most watched broadcast of a series episode in television American history. The record has been broken by the Super Bowl, but in ratings and share, the phenomenon of M*A*S*H’s ratings bonanza will not and cannot ever be repeated. Now there are hundreds of channels, and with them come not only more choices, but more opportunities for less conventional shows to survive and thrive.

Another kind of modern family: Louis C.K., Ursula Parker, and Hadley Delany in “Louie” (© Copyright 2015, FX Networks.)

The latest victim of the tyranny of the network TV ratings game is Hannibal (see my review here). It’s one of the edgiest to be broadcast on any network. Sadly, that network is NBC. On July 26, 2015, one million people watched Hannibal. For NBC on a Thursday night, that is considered abysmal, and the show has been canceled. Hannibal’s cancellation feels unjust: It’s not only one of the most fascinating shows on TV, but also that there are plenty of shows that are just as off the beaten track as Hannibal that have been allowed to thrive elsewhere.

Lyrical, nuanced

For instance, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify is an amazing show that could never make it on network TV. On the surface, Rectify depicts the travails of Daniel Holden, who was convicted at age 18 of killing his girlfriend. After he spent 19 years on death row, his sentence was vacated due to DNA evidence. He returns to the small Georgia town where he grew up, traumatized and causing upheaval in his family and the town. Doubt still remains about Daniel’s role in the murder.

From that brief synopsis, it’s impossible to tell what a lyrical, poetic show this is. Paced slowly, Rectify relies on nuanced portrayals without ever overexplaining. On another network, the focus would be on whether or not Daniel really did commit a crime, but this show cares much more about who the characters are than whodunit.

Rectify’s season three premiere got only 224,000 viewers, but it’s already been renewed for a fourth season. Granted, seasons three and four will be only six episodes each, but this is a show that wouldn’t even make it out of development on NBC or FOX. The first two seasons are streaming on Netflix, so it’s not too hard to catch up.

Pirates, successful and otherwise

The more obscure premium channels are also able to nurture shows that founder on the networks. A prime example of this is the STARZ show Black Sails. Set on New Providence Island in the Bahamas during the Golden Age of Piracy in 1715, the characters are hybrids of fictional pirates from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, such as Captain Flint and Billy Bones, and real pirates like Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, Charles Vane, and Blackbeard. The show is as much about the political maneuvering and economic realities of piracy in the New World as it is about battles on the high seas. Even though it’s a Michael Bay production, the story is edgy and modern in its depiction of sexuality and gender roles. The most fiscally influential person in Nassau is a woman, and this show passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.

Black Sails debuted at the same time that the John Malkovich pirate vehicle Crossbones debuted on NBC. Crossbones was canceled before the first season ended, though at its worst, the show had 1.5 million viewers, while Black Sails has been renewed for a third season. Season one was a slow set up, introducing audiences to the setting, players, and stakes. Because renewal was almost guaranteed, the show could afford to invest in such pacing, which paid off beautifully in season two. Not having to worry about the immediacy of ratings (or about network standards and practices) has allowed Black Sails to blossom into more than just a show about swashbuckling.

It is to laugh

Comedies possibly have it worse than dramas when it comes to making the cut. Widely considered one of the greatest comedians of this era, Louis C.K. is the writer, producer, editor, and star of the critically acclaimed Louie. The FX show, which regularly wins writing Emmys, debuted this year to only 843,000 viewers. Because he has total control over the writing, editing, and direction of the show — and will probably be able to do it for as long as he’s willing — Louis C.K. is able to take his story to dark and sometimes surreal places. Season four was a comedy in only the most esoteric sense. Half of it comprised two multi-episode sequences that pieced together into bleak short films.

On the other hand, Modern Family, which has won the Outstanding Comedy Emmy five years running, not to mention many awards for acting and directing, regularly tops 12 million viewers — 15 times the size of Louie’s audience — even in its weakest seasons. To its credit, Modern Family has broadened the viewing public’s understanding of the nature of “family,” but as a show it doesn’t stretch the definition of comedy very far.

I’m completely uninterested in reality TV and pro sports, and have become jaded by formulaic shows about cops, doctors, and lawyers. The era when the dark, troubled male antihero was compelling has ended, and the only shows still relying on that trope are derivative. As long as I don’t let it bother me that the Emmys rarely actually go to the best shows, writing, direction, or acting, my need for good stories is satisfied. And thank goodness for that, because otherwise I might actually have to go back to reading books.

 

Above right: Clara Paget as Anne Bonny in Black Sails (Photo by Keith Bernstein - © Black Sails2014)

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