The expert on American culture and business stands by one of his favorite networks, but gives us an in-depth look at how programming has gotten too formulaic.
USA Network is an answer to the question: what would TV look like if it were made by women? It is more emotionally interesting, more socially complex, more embedded in the world. It’s about character, and, yes, characters, and, here and there, it’s now in danger of jumping the shark.
If there were any doubt about the USA Network contribution to TV, it was removed by the recent launch of Necessary Roughness (Wednesday 10:00). This follows in the tradition of Fairly Legal. Both feature women as professional mediators who step into conflict and make talk do the work of confrontation. Good writing flourishes. Good acting flourishes. TV gets better.
But there is trouble. Just as USA Network goes from strength to strength, some of the workhorses are failing. I looked in on Burn Notice and Royal Pains this week and both are in danger of turning mechanical. The formula is showing. Disbelief is getting harder to suspend. In Royal Pains we can now see plot points coming a long way off, and the moments of urgency (a medical crisis of some kind) are now entirely paint by number and they leave this viewer wondering if I’ve got time to go make a sandwich. Burn Notice is still worse. The music comes up and people spring! into! action!, yelling, shouting, and blowing things up. And I think, “oh, definitely. I have time to make a sandwich and a blended beverage.”
This is perhaps a programming problem. Perhaps there is a constituency that will not tune in unless they get high drama and big explosions. They will sit through the dialogue and character(s) development, but that’s not why they’re there. You need to blow stuff up.
So now the creative challenge for CEO Bonnie Hammer is this: how to combined old-fashioned TV with new-fashioned TV in a manner that pleases the traditional constituency without making a more sophisticated constituency roll their eyes and think about sandwiches. One solution perhaps is to somehow make the drama and dialogue more seamless, to make them interpenetrating. Otherwise the action feels like a commercial break (and in a sense it is).
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[Republished with kind permission from Grant McCracken's anthropology and economics blog, Cultureby.]
Grant McCracken is a trained anthropologist who has studied American culture and business for 25 years. He has worked for many corporate clients including Coca-Cola, Ikea, Kimberly Clark, and Diageo. He is the author of two volumes of Culture and Consumptions, and is set to publish a book called Chief Cultur Office with Basic Books this fall. This new book will focus on how culture no creates so much opportunity and danger for corporations. Learn more about Grant McCracken.