- In Conversation:Creativity in the Contemporary Cable Industry
Arange of scholarly publications has surveyed the emergent practices and products of the cable industry.1 But far less attention has been paid to why writers themselves are finding cable an increasingly hospitable venue in which to develop and produce hour-long series.2 In part, the paucity of literature is due to the rapid pace of change in the cable industry.
Prior to the late 1990s, few hour-long dramas were produced for either basic or pay cable outlets. Those that did air tended to have modest budgets and low production values. Then, as cable penetration increased, first pay and then basic cable outlets developed signature original series as a way of branding themselves and attracting critical attention.3 Though costly, a popular and/or critically acclaimed original series provides cable networks with a means by which to recruit viewers and differentiate themselves in a competitive multimedia landscape.
An oft-cited turning point for original cable programming is HBO's move into original programming with Oz (1997–2003), followed by The Sopranos (1999–2007) and Six Feet Under (2001–2005). Showtime's subsequent entry into the fray with Queer as Folk (2000–2005) and The L Word (2004–2009) confirmed that pay cable had become a place where writers could work with competitive budgets, greater creative autonomy, and minimal executive interference.4 Shortly thereafter, [End Page 132] basic cable outlets began to take on both the broadcast networks and premium cable services. FX (The Shield, 2002–2008), the Sci-Fi Channel (Battlestar Galactica, 2004–2009), USA (Monk, 2002–2009), TNT (The Closer, 2005–), and AMC (Mad Men, 2007–) have been among the most aggressive in developing hour-long series.
Cumulatively, these industry shifts have established the conditions within which a growing number of writers have been able to thrive. Yet, though cable has increasingly matched the broadcast networks in talent and production values, a number of distinctions remain. The business models, production practices, and creative possibilities for cable are substantially different from those of broadcast television. As a means of better understanding what writing for cable entails, and how it differs from writing for broadcast, I interviewed Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, showrunners for Queer as Folk; John Rogers, showrunner for Leverage (TNT, 2008–); Michael Horowitz, staff writer for Burn Notice (USA, 2007–); and Jimmy Palmiotti, cocreator of the Painkiller Jane comic on which the series was based (Sci-Fi, 2007).5 With diverse experiences writing for theater, broadcast television, film, comics, and games, these writers can speak with authority about what sets cable apart. Because of their unique backgrounds and varying levels of power, their observations provide an expansive snapshot of the opportunities and constraints associated with writing and producing contemporary hour-long cable series.
Relearning What You Know
For Cowen and Lipman, it was both daunting and liberating to work with a pay cable network after years of interacting with broadcast network Standards and Practices while showrunners for Sisters (NBC, 1991–1996). Since it is not advertiser supported, Showtime encouraged Cowen and Lipman to push the boundaries of sexual situations and language. Indeed, the network's slogan when the producers began working on Queer as Folk was "No Limits."
It took some time for Cowen and Lipman to adjust to this new institutional context. As they explain:
We were all brought up with television and [familiar with] what was allowed on television, what we expected on television. Then we were put in this situation on Showtime where we could go beyond that. We realized that we [writers, actors, and directors] had to take off all of our sensors, our blinders. We could say whatever we wanted to say, we could do whatever we wanted to do, show whatever we wanted to show. Now, we didn't have any full frontal nudity or anything like that. But it wasn't just in terms of sexual things. It was emotionally, it was verbally. It was whatever we wanted. We all had to break this lifelong knowledge of what we accepted on television because that was what was fed to us. "You cannot see this, you cannot...