2011 in television saw the continued deterioration of network television. Yes, thanks to reality TV and the overall reach of network TV, the networks still control most of the ratings versus cable. That lead is slipping away more and more however with cable premieres beginning to crack the kinds of numbers normally shown by the networks. Both Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead out-ranked such long running series as Desperate Housewives and Law & Order SVU in weekly ratings; a remarkable feat nearly ignored by a ratings industry skewed in the network’s favor.
The networks have remained on top thanks to reality TV. 2011 saw American Idol shed its biggest star, Simon Cowell, and still manage to top the ratings. Cowell himself launched a new series, The X-Factor, to strong, if not Idol-esque ratings, and gave Fox a fall beachhead during the usually barren Idol off-season. Ratings for Dancing with the Stars and Survivor reflect the aging of each show and continue to erode but remain strong enough for networks to crow about; they also remain cheaply produced and thus heavily profitable.
Even basement dwelling network NBC managed to find reality series success in 2011. The Voice may not have American Idol numbers but it was the best thing NBC has seen in far too many years. The Sing-off and The Biggest Loser are shows that would likely be cancelled by other networks but are hits by NBC standards and the recent return of Fear Factor finally gave NBC a boost on Mondays where the network has lately sent shows to die.
Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men and for a time became an even bigger star without a top-rated network sitcom. Sheen’s ‘Winning’ ways have subsided of late as he prepares for a sitcom return in 2012 while Two and a Half Men continued without him; though his shadow remains the funniest thing about the show now led by Ashton Kutcher.
While the networks can be fairly accused of not taking risks Fox did take one major risk with the pricy dino-drama Terra Nova. The result of that risk has been good but not great ratings that may or may not be good enough to justify the series extraordinary cost. Fox had better luck with the familiar form of the sitcom as Zooey Deschanel gave the network its first non-animated hit sitcom since Married with Children.
Network drama is basically dead. Yes, Grey’s Anatomy, The Mentalist, and the NCIS duo deliver solid ratings but critics have forgotten they exist. Yearly awards shows are beginning to reflect the end of the network drama. The Emmys celebrated HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones as well as AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men and then, in a true middle finger to NBC, recognized the network’s Friday Night Lights as the network cast the series into cancellation.
The crazy thing about the success that drama is finding on cable is that there isn’t that much happening on these shows that the networks couldn’t do. What is it about Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story or Mad Men that couldn’t have been done on network television? Why do shows like Harry’s Law find a network home while better shows that could likely thrive on a network, shows like Burn Notice or Suits or any of the fun shows on TNT end up on cable?
2011 is a rare year where there was not an iconic series ending. Arguably, the biggest series finales of the year saw the end of FX’s firemen drama Rescue Me and the finale of the Superman drama Smallville. Rescue Me came to an emotional and yet perfectly odd end that tied up the series connection to September 11th and the emotional-comic journey of Denis Leary’s troubled firefighter. Smallville ended the only way it could with star Tom Welling Superman’s iconic blue and red tights.
That’s my two cents on the year in television and here is what I feel were the ten best shows of 2011.
- Parks and Recreation
- Sons of Anarchy
- Breaking Bad
- Boardwalk Empire
- New Girl
- Modern Family
- The Walking Dead
Honorable mentions: Cougar Town, Happy Endings, Steve Carell’s last few episodes of The Office, True Blood, How I Met Your Mother, Friday Night Lights.
A few random awards voted on by me…
Network of the year: FX for their bold ventures into original sitcoms on cable including Louie, Archer and the long running It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Episode of the year Drama – Game of Thrones “Baelor”
Best new series – New Girl on Fox