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TV Wasteland: Cable Domination
Are the big networks obsolete?
By Rob Vaux
July 23, 2012
Warehouse 13 premieres this week.
© Syfy/Robert Trate
Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead. Falling Skies. True Blood. Warehouse 13. Alphas. What do all these shows have in common? They're all on cable, not the networks. And with the possible exception of Lost, no network has produced anything nearly as engaging or daring in the last decade. You'll never see more proof of the long tail in action than this week's Emmy nominations: not a single network show made the list of Best Drama nominees or Best Miniseries or Movie nominees. That leaves just a few half-hour sit-coms, the occasional supporting performance, and Kathy Bates to carry the free TV banner.
Commercial-driven television will never entirely vanish, of course, but the advent of the Internet, DVDs and other means of consumption make that business model utterly obsolete. In order to make a profit, network shows need to reach ten times the audience that cable shows do. Subsidized by our monthly Time-Warner or DirecTV bill, cable shows can be leaner, smarter and -- most importantly -- reliant on a smaller audience in order to show a profit. That grants them increased creative freedom: speaking to their viewers more boldly and occasionally doing cool things that might alienate a wider audience. Conversely, look at the failure of network shows like Kings and Awake, which embraced the cable ethos and may have thrived had they appeared on FX or TNT instead of NBC.
It's been that way for years, of course, but when an institution as stuffy and hidebound as the Television Academy figures it out, we have to start asking ourselves where the networks go from here. They've been doing business the same way for over half a century, but if they want to continue to compete, they're going to need to change their game plan. If one of them embraces an alternate model, it may renew their power. If not, they'll undergo a slow fade to irrelevance as the new Pravda takes over. Either way, it likely spells the end of television as we once knew it… and perhaps the beginning of something much, much better.
Warehouse 13 (Syfy, 9:00 PM EST)
Season Four of Warehouse 13 kicks off with no Warehouse 13. The team presumably gets right on that.
Alphas (Syfy, 10:00 PM EST)
The second season gets underway as the team reforms to deal with a hostage crisis.
Teen Wolf (MTV, 10:00 PM EST)
Lydia's having a birthday party! Nothing ever goes wrong at one of those!
Alien vs. Predator (AMC, 8:00 PM EST)
I know Lance Henriksen has bills to pay, but come on man…
Alien 3 (Cinemax, 10:00 PM EST)
This second sequel is widely regarded as the beginning of the end of the Alien franchise, despite some guy named Fincher behind the camera.
Eagle Eye (FX, 8:00 PM EST)
Shia Le Beouf stars and… hey wait, where are you going?
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Syfy, 6:30 PM EST)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, we love you to death and we're sure you jumped at the chance to play Cobra Commander. Please don't do anything like this again.
Destination Truth (Syfy, (9:00 PM EST)
Apparently, Central Asia gets UFO sightings too… and Sweden has a Loch Ness monster. Who knew?
Haunted Highway (Syfy, 10:00 PM EST)
Nevada has demonic dogs and Georgia just has plain old demons. So why are they all hanging out in the sticks, where hardly anyone comes along for them to frighten?
Mission to Mars (AMC, 8:00 PM EST)
Brian De Palma wants to swallow your soul… but here, he has to settle for Stanley Kubrick's.
District 9 (AMC, 10:30 PM EST)
The best science fiction movie of the past five years? Yeah, I'll go there.
The Thing (Cinemax, 10:00 PM EST)
It's not that bad. We just really, really wanted it to be better.
Avatar (FX, 8:00 PM EST)
I can't wait for the sequels to arrive and the subsequent marathons on basic cable that will take up entire weekends in their length. Oh wait, no I don't.
Sucker Punch (HBO, 7:00 PM EST)
The director of this movie currently holds DC's entire feature film destiny in his hands. Sleep tight.
Contagion (HBO, 9:00 PM EST)
Steven Soderbergh scores a minor coup in his look at the spread of a super-bug and the impact it has on society.
Teeth (IFC, 10:00 PM EST)
You boys better play nice, or you'll have nothing left to play with. Trust me on this one.
Haunted Collector (Syfy, 9:00 PM EST)
If someone is actually collecting haunted objects, I'd imagine his storage room looks a lot like the basement in Cabin in the Woods. Anyhow, they're checking out a haunted house in Glendora, California this week… ten miles from my doorstep. Joy.
School Spirits (Syfy, 10:00 PM EST)
Eastern Kentucky University has an old ghost story… as do most East Coast schools, I'd wager. Doesn’t mean we need a whole damn show about them.
Black Mask (FMC, 9:00 PM EST)
Jet Li fails to ignite an intriguing premise, even with an uncanny duplication of Bruce Lee's Kato routine.
The A-Team (HBO, 8:00 PM EST)
Tough widely regarded as a failure, this 2010 adaptation of the 80s TV show measures up quite well… which is sadly more than I can say about the show itself.
The Devil's Rejects (IFC, 8:00 PM EST)
Rob Zombie has a vision, I'll give him that.
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (IFC, 10:15 PM EST)
Why is this movie so beautiful? Is it the evil sink? The chainsaw hand? The Steadicam fu? It's the Steadicam fu, isn't it?
Fright Night (Showtime, 8:00 PM EST)
Screenwriter Marti Noxon claims she got the idea for this witty remake while canvassing suburban Las Vegas. One out of three homes was empty… the perfect place for a vampire to set up shop.
Burn Notice (USA, 9:00 PM EST)
MI6 tries to stop Fiona from being sprung, while Michael follows a possible lead on Anson.
Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead and Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings (Syfy, 7:00 PM EST and 9:00 PM EST)
Looking at this line-up prompts one single question: there was a Wrong Turn 2?
When a Stranger Calls (Starz, 7:30 PM EST)
The original film had exactly one good gag. You'd think a remake could scare up a few more…
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Starz, 9:00 PM EST)
It's hard to stay mad at Jay Baruchel, and the slight entertainment on display here benefits as a result.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (ABC Family, 8:00 PM EST)
Deep down inside, I think all power-mad dictators are schoolmarms at heart, as the wonderfully despicable Delores Umbridge proves.
Daredevil (FMC, 8:00 PM EST)
It's ten years on, and you really ought to give this one another look. It think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Open Water and Open Water 2: Adrift (IFC, 8:00 PM EST and 9:45 PM EST)
The nihilism and despair of post-9/11 horror movies reached a sort of apex here, in a pair of stories about how quickly and horribly your life can go wrong.
Your Highness (HBO, 8:00 PM EST)
Can anyone tell us if this film is less hideous when you're stoned? Enquiring minds want to know.
TRON: Uprising is off this week. Chances of renewal do not look good…
Lost Girl (Syfy, 10:00 PM EST)
Bo tracks a group of missing backpackers and gets more than she bargained for. Again, note the new air date.
Dick Tracy Marathon (TCM, 8:00 PM EST)
Turner Classic starts the evening with Warren Beatty's great 1990 adaptation of the comic-strip detective, followed by a new special in which Beatty and Leonard Maltin discuss the character's roots. The rest of the evening is given over to a triple-feature of old-school Dick Tracy films from the 1940s. Tracy fans -- and I'm led to understand that some exist -- should set their DVRs now, while newcomers will never have a better opportunity to see what they've been missing.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (ABC Family, 7:30 PM)
Glad Warners still has Harry Potter residuals to fall back on, because their franchise stable is looking bleak…
Death Wish II and Death Wish 3 (AMC, 8:00 PM EST and 10:00 PM EST)
The prospect of spending an entire evening watching Charles Bronson's career crumble before our eyes is just too depressing to bear.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (BBC America, 8:00 PM EST)
If ever anyone had an "I'm here to save the film" moment, it was Alan Rickman right here.
Aliens (Cinemax, 7:45 PM EST)
Ooohh… and no commercials either!
Finding Nemo (Disney, 7:45 PM EST)
Look for this one to get a lot of play in the next few months as Disney preps the 3D release.
Hancock (FX, 7:00 PM EST)
The defining quality of a movie star is someone you want to watch even if the material isn't strong. Ladies and gentlemen, Will Smith!
In Time (HBO, 9:00 PM EST)
When did Justin Timberlake become a viable actor? He's not supposed to do that!
Independence Day (TNT, 8:00 PM EST)
Does it bother anybody else that the President of the United States -- the one we're all counting on to save us -- is Lone Star from Spaceballs? Just sayin'.
Today also marks the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics. Stand by for two full weeks of stunningly shitty coverage from NBC.
The Nerdist (BBC America, 9:00 PM EST)
The BBC unveils a new series based on the popular comedy podcast with a pair of back-to-back episodes. The first covers the latest Comic Con, while the second discusses toys and games with a nerdy bent.
The Mist (Syfy, 6:30 PM EST)
See, this is was Syfy is supposed to be like. Take a well-regarded recent genre film and screen it alongside an older film that fans might not be as familiar with…
The Philadelphia Experiment (Syfy, 9:00 PM EST)
Oh wait, it's not an older film at all. It's a shitty direct-to-cable remake of an older film. Carry on.
The Smurfs (Starz, 7:10 PM EST)
I've tried to watch this three times and have been unable to do so. It's not just bad, it's dull and bad and creepy all rolled into one
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (TCM, 8:00 PM EST)
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford start in one of the great creepy/campy movies of all times, about a demented former child star who tortures her helpless sister.
Monsters, Inc., (ABC Family, 7:00 PM EST)
Like most Pixar films, it's definitely worth watching… though they're really pushing their luck with a sequel.
Mulan (ABC Family, 9:00 PM EST)
Though considered second-tier, this actually stands as one of the better Disney films in recent years… as well as helping to redefine the notion of "princess."
The Matrix (AMC, 8:00 PM EST)
This works in part because Keanu Reeves is so damn good at looking baffled.
True Blood (HBO, 9:00 PM EST)
Sookie and Jason look for clues into their parents' death, while The Authority plots a change in direction.
Aladdin (ABC Family, 8:00 PM EST)
Disney's take on the famous Arabian Nights tale works well as simple entertainment, but lacks the masterful spark of Beauty and the Beast and other animated classics.
A Knight's Tale (BBC America, 8:00 PM EST)
The late Heath Ledger stars in a goofy romp that combines medieval romance with 80s power ballads. Paul Bettany steals the show as a savvy version of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance (Cinemax, 7:45 PM EST and 10:00 PM EST)
Cinemax dedicates the evening to the first and third entries in the largely reliable Die Hard franchise.
Good Guys Wear Black (IFC, 6:45 PM EST)
The interwebs have assured me that Chuck Norris is really, really tough. Here's a chance to see it in action.
The Last Legion (IFC, 8:45 PM EST)
Too much silliness derails this attempt to tie the fall of Rome in with the King Arthur legend.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Starz, 9:00 PM EST)
Too long, too bleak and too unnecessary in the wake of the Nordic original, this David Fincher joint nonetheless scores points for its gorgeous cinematography and fantastic opening credits sequence.
Ghost World (Sundance, 8:00 PM EST)
Remember Thora Birch? Damn she was good here Somebody needs to find her some work…
Signs (Syfy, 6:30 PM EST)
M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix… with all the careers that have gone off the rails since this film, how come no one's talking about a Signs curse?
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (Syfy, 9:00 PM EST)
No curses here, just a mediocre sequel to a not-exactly-groundbreaking original.
Falling Skies is a rerun this week.