Is 2011 the Year Television Networks Forget About Cable and Cord-Cutting?

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Judging from the evidence of last week’s Upfront presentations in which the broadcast networks revealed their fall 2011 schedules to advertisers and the public alike, television has finally realized how to deal with the threat of cord-cutting: Ignore it altogether. Instead of trying to fight the internet, broadcast television appears to have a new aim: Be The Best Network Television You Can Be.

The boldness of the networks’ fall 2011 plans didn’t go unnoticed by studio executives; Sony Pictures Television president of programming Zack Van Amburg told the Hollywood Reporter, “Overall it really feels like the broadcast networks are back. It doesn’t feel like they’re chasing the eroding audience that seems to be migrating to cable. It’s almost like they all got together and said, what can we do differently and in our way better than cable? And the answer is to do things a little bit bigger with more style, more flair and more production value.”

This new attitude comes not from any number of studies that suggest that cord cutting isn’t a real thing, but from the far more tangible proof of increased ad spending, apparently. It’s something noted by studios and networks alike, with Warner Bros TV CEO Peter Roth offering, “Having had a number of years in which the increases were quite minor –in the single digits– and CPMs were marginally improved, it appears as if the industry is poised for a significant growth spurt.”

Sony’s Van Amburg agrees: “I think this time the energy was vastly positive. And positive for a very specific reason: It feels like the ad market has come back in a very robust way.”

And as the ad money has returned, so apparently has the confidence in terms of programming: New shows are, on a whole, more ambitious and upbeat than in previous years, with less second-guessing audience tastes (Thankfully, there are no “New Losts” this year; the biggest content trend seems to be more comedies, encouraged by the success of Modern Family) and, it seems, fewer network notes.

Network television may have given up worrying about losing audience to cable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the networks haven’t taken some lessons from cable; Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva notes that this year saw network television embrace cable’s trust of creators’ voices, over network notes:

A lot has been written about the cumbersome and painful network notes process, creators often complain that it interferes with their vision. Well, the network brass circumvented their traditional development process more than ever this season, going heavily for spec scripts that were often taken out in the final stage of the development process… With so many new shows making it to the screen with the voice of their creators virtually unfiltered by the network development machine, maybe the broadcast networks will move closer to the cable and British model of auteur TV.

The newfound confidence, interestingly enough, goes beyond just the networks themselves. Studios are sticking with high-profile pilots that didn’t get picked up, and are considering shopping them elsewhere (20th Century Fox is hinting that both Exit Strategy and Locke & Key could show up on cable at some point; Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman might also live on elsewhere).

Whether audiences are ready for re-energized, confident and spendy network television will, of course, remain to be seen until this fall. It could be rough – NBC in particular has to be hoping for a better result than last year, where almost all of its new shows didn’t make it to a second season. But if the networks remain as confident in what they have to offer as they seem right now, and turn out to be willing to wait out uneven ratings while shows find their feet, network television might find itself turning into a destination once again… and then, the only problem that’ll remain for them will be working out what to do with Hulu.