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Is US network TV drama dying?

Has US network TV drama had its day? Is the lure of a commission from one of the four major US broadcasters losing its appeal?

Network television drama is losing ground to cable in terms of ambition, originality, scale and star power.  

This year’s crop of new shows have faltered out of the gate. Lonestar, the Fox produced and distributed Jon Voight-fronted drama about a con man in oil rich Texas, was cancelled moments after its second episode aired; My Generation, ABC’s adaptation of Swedish drama Blomsterid distributed by Disney Media Distribution, and Jimmy Smits-fronted legal drama Outlaw have gone the same way.

More cuts are also expected; Running Wilde, Fox’s Will Arnett-fronted comedy produced by Lionsgate, teeters on the edge and The Event, NBC’s 24-meets-Heroes tentpole sci-fi drama, has seen ratings continue to fall –  despite the fact it was sold into more than 200 territories by NBC Universal International Television Distribution.

Only CBS’ meat and potatoes cop drama (Blue Bloods) and high profile remake Hawaii Five-O – the most DVR-ed series this season – have bucked this trend.

Are the US networks in danger of driving all of the exciting, creative talent to the shelter of the vibrant cable networks, only to be left with nothing but Chuck Lorre comedies and lowest common denominator reality series?

Aaron Sorkin, writer and creator of NBC’s seven season series The West Wing, has alluded to the fact that his next TV project, which he is expected to announce in the coming weeks, will be produced for cable.

“With a television series you have to give it a bit of a chance; you’re not necessarily going to be hooked by the very first episode. You have to find out what it’s going to be,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Mark Lawson. “I’ll be doing a new TV series soon, which will find a new way to explore politics and tell those same kinds of stories [as the West Wing].”

Sorkin enjoyed considerable success with The West Wing on network television. However, his follow up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which also aired on NBC in 2006/7, was cancelled after only one season, despite its near record license fee, critical acclaim and first episode ratings of over 13 million viewers.  

Why would Sorkin allow his next project, which is expected to centre around the politics of the cable news business, to be subject to the same vagaries of network television, when it could enjoy long running success on one of the niche, targeted channels?

Why would Noah Hawley (My Generation), Kyle Killen (Lonestar) and John Eisendrather (Outlaw) develop another series for US network television (other than to milk their current deals)?

When they see the creative freedom that Matthew Weiner with Mad Men and Terence Winter with Boardwalk Empire have received from AMC and HBO respectively, they will likely soon start penning more ambitious fare for more ambitious channels.

But, does the dearth of new breakout drama series even matter? While, many while hark back to the days when families would gather around the television to watch the hot new network show, the rise of the niche viewer isn’t having a negative effect on network owners, as invariably they are the very same vertically integrated companies that own a slew of cable channels. NBC Universal, for instance, was recently valued at negative $600 million by Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan, while its sister division, which includes channels USA Network and SyFy, was valued at $32.7 billion. Forthcoming owner Comcast, a cable company, won’t mind where the money comes from as long as it comes from somewhere.

But if one of the big four went bust or became a pay only channel – that would have a major creative impact on US television as well as its profile around the world.