Much examination is being paid at the broadcast networks these days. It’s getting to be an old story but the audiences continue to redefine “fragmented” with options on screen, online and even your phone. In a universe with thousands of channels, the veteran networks may not have an identity with a younger audience who looks for shows, not channels. But it remains that they have to find new ways to stay in the game. CBS, in the past decade, has constructed a virtually impenetrable schedule of procedural dramas and Monday comedies. It has also beaten a decades-long jinx of transplanting a comedy on another night with the success of “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursdays. FOX is also on its way to an airtight line-up fueled by “American Idol” and animation domination on Sundays. “The X-Factor” (with sometimes four hours a week) has added to their fortress as the fall had been a waiting game for years until “Idol” (and the now-cancelled “24”) returned mid-season. ABC has its watercooler faves with “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Bachelor” and “Grey’s Anatomy” while concentrating on a resurgence of family comedies such as “Modern Family” and “The Middle.” Of course, NBC is now struggling much as it had in the late 1970s with new series failing and veteran series aging. “The Voice” offered the network much promise last year but was saved this year for mid-season. “Grimm” also surprised the industry with some success on the increasingly difficult Friday schedule. “Whitney” has become a modern-day “Hello, Larry.”

No matter how successful the network, the key is still finding the next hit show. It always looks easier that it appears. When shows launch, patience is often expected by its audience. If there is a spark in that show, it pays off… sometimes. Many shows are cancelled quickly and these mercy killings are based on what the network has seen already that the viewer hasn’t. And, just by the law of numbers, it’s just as well. There are shows nowadays that are getting their fourth seasons with ratings that would have gotten them killed elsewhere. It’s not even a question if a fourth-season show will ever be a hit (it won’t) but will the show even be a solid middle-range performer? Looking back at the network hits of the past, I can sum up how a network should look to turn itself around with one word:


“Cheers,” the 1982-1993 NBC hit comedy became a mega-hit after two years of finding its way. Actually, this well-written, well-directed, well-acted show didn’t even make it on its own. It wasn’t until 1984 when the groundbreaking “Cosby Show” led off Thursday nights that it built up the shows (“Family Ties,” “Cheers” and “Night Court”) after it to the top 10. “Cheers” had a first season with an episode that rated in last place for the week and ended with a series finale that was at the time, the second-highest rated program in history. But I bring up this beloved show because it applies to the two key ingredients to growing a network. “Cheers” literally began as NBC was in last place, helped carry it to new heights, and when it went off the air, NBC had to rebuild again. (And it did with “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “ER” but that’s another story.)

Television shows need to be one of two things to break out of the pack and become a network savior: “super smart” or “super fun.” “Cheers” was both.

Not only was “Cheers” super smart and super fun for fans but also for those within the bar. Worlds collided. The series began with professional student Diane Chambers going to work at the bar where patrons lived for hijinks and practical jokes. Their leader was Sam Malone, king of super fun, who once played major league baseball until he had too much fun boozing and continued to live for fun with the ladies. The series became a symbol for the network as NBC began to thrive with the critically-acclaimed (“Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “L.A. Law”) balanced by the fun-loving audience favorites (“The A-Team,” “ALF,” “Knight Rider”).

Let’s look at the current hits. “American Idol”: super fun. There are times when the insights brought by the judges can also be super smart. Former judge Simon Cowell could be blunt but that reflected a very real obstacle in the working world when only one person gets the one available job. He has brought that truthfulness to “The X-Factor.” Most of the procedurals from “NCIS” to “House” to “Law and Order: SVU” show investigations that can be super smart. But there’s no question that often the stories and the characters can be super fun. “The Simpsons” is super fun and super smart but animation isn’t for everyone despite being a mega-hit for over twenty years. It hasn’t been a top ten show in decades.

But you say, what about all the super smart shows that last 13 weeks? Or even third-season favorite “The Good Wife” that is currently finding its way on Sunday nights? They probably could use more super fun. The series’ relationships and twists are often missed out by viewers disinterested in yet another legal drama. Super fun shows don’t even have to be super smart (but there is likely a shrewdness that keeps them alive). There are critics of shows like “Two and a Half Men” and “Family Guy” who believe they are not smart shows. They are fun shows but clearly have cleverness (even if you don’t personally agree with it) that win people over.

There are shows that loyal audiences find to be super smart and super fun that would challenge my theory. “Community” and “Parks and Recreation” continue to limp along. Why are they relegated to cult status while “The Office” was much more successful for NBC? The key to super fun (and all television) is character. Yes, Michael Scott often committed unforgivable acts but he and much of the cast are larger-than-life. They are also in a setting that is highly relatable. You might hate the Dwight in your office but there’s no question that you recognize these characters. When shows are set in places that you might want to spend time or border on antics that get too surreal (again, not everyone likes animation), you risk a wider audience. Networks are finding out the hard way that niche programming or copying cable hits don’t necessarily work.

A necessary character trait for them to be super smart or super fun is being a powerful leader. No matter the genre, no matter the world situation, audiences look for someone to look up to, even in fictional characters. In the 1970s, the Fonz was a powerful leader, in the 1980s, J.R. Ewing and in the 1990s even Dr. Doug Ross was the best at what he did. Characters like Mary Richards, Hawkeye Pierce, Tim Taylor, Jack McCoy and Andy Sipowicz were clearly leaders and often groundbreaking personas. In the last decade, Simon Cowell, Dr. House, Jack Bauer and even Charlie Harper (rest in peace) were forces of nature. Even if you didn’t like their behavior, you had to admire their ambition. Networks recently attempted to enter the period drama based on the award-winning “Mad Men” on AMC. Although I don’t know if niche drama can always translate to network, they didn’t capture the heart of its success: the appeal of Don Draper. “Mad Men” can often be a modern-day “L.A. Law” in its moral complexities, serialized storylines and sexy relationships. It has been criticized for being too slow in its pacing but it’s not far off from the great broadcast network shows. Don Draper is super fun and super smart. Personally, if I were running a network, I couldn’t wait to see what Matthew Weiner could do with a 10:00 pm network drama.

So, this is all well and good but where does the future of broadcast networks lie? Who do audiences want to be? Where do audiences want to go? During an era of economic suffering, there is an opportunity for networks to lure audiences to places they would rather be and lives they dream of having. There is a market for escapism, travel and wealth (modern-day “Love Boat,” “Dynasty” and even the working professionals of “The Cosby Show”) as well as more serious aspirations for a better world (“The West Wing,” “Lou Grant”). Many reality shows on both broadcast and cable explore these worlds. Maybe it’s time that scripted broadcast shows begin the future of broadcasting.

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