The Good Wife is the best drama on TV currently. It’s smart, subtle, well written has terrific performances from its stellar cast and usually commands roughly 13 million viewers a week. How Robert and Michelle King juggle office politics, with the tale of a scorned wife, political stories, romance, and even a tinge of soap opera style backstabbing etc is astounding. It has also accomplished something special. It’s a drama on CBS that has acclaim, and more importantly buzz. This isn’t a slam at CBS. They are the most consistently successful network by far. But let’s be honest, it’s not as if Criminal Minds gets people all atwitter on twitter. Yet Criminal Minds is a huge hit for CBS and currently still gets at least mid 3’s in the demo. Even more concerning is that while NCIS:LA has maintained its numbers from last year, The Good Wife is down (all while its buzz has increased), although that might have more to do with less live viewing in the 10pm hour accross the board.
The Good Wife is the kind of show that has made the cover of Entertainment Weekly and is loved by viewers of such acclaimed cable shows like Mad Men. There are very few shows that are that universally loved by such a wide range of people. There are certain critics and bloggers who have even said they never saw themselves watching a show called “The Good Wife” and on CBS no less, yet it’s their favorite show.
And still, The Good Wife can’t seem to get a higher demo score than a 2.2 most weeks. Now on any network these days that’s a great number for 10pm, but on the mighty CBS, it’s on the lower end of the ratings spectrum. It’s even more noteworthy because its somewhat incompatible lead in NCIS:LA, never gets lower than a low to mid 3. Just for perspective here’s how other CBS dramas do at 10p. The Mentalist is easily the best performing 10p drama on TV, usually getting a low 3. Hawaii 5-0 is consistently getting a 2.9 – the highest number any NEW show is getting at 10p and next to The Mentalist is the second highest rated 10p performer anywhere on network TV. Even more in its favor is it rises dramatically with DVR usage growing at least 1.2, to usually average around a 4. Even the Criminal Minds spin-off which has only been on since the middle of February and this week followed a rerun of its parent show – beat The Good Wife by .1 this week.
It made me wonder if there is something about sophisticated, smart, nuanced dramas that will forever relegate them to no more than a low 2? I would venture to say that there are many people who don’t watch CBS AT ALL, who watch The Good Wife. So does that mean the average CBS viewer isn’t watching? Mike & Molly can get a 3.2 and then Hawaii 5-0 can retain most of that number at 10. Between NCIS:LA and The Good Wife, there is at least 1.0 disparity most weeks. To my unscientific mind, I would guess that while there is a different viewer that shows up to CBS for The Good Wife, maybe the regular CBS viewer that loves the NCIS’s, Criminal Minds, CSI’s etc, likes it less. I have no data to back this up, I am just conjecturing, but I would think that if the CBS loyalist was watching The Good Wife AND all these cable loving enthusiasts were too, the number would be at least on par with The Mentalist and Hawaii 5-0, no?
Let’s be honest here, contrary to the many ratings obsessed sites that want to intimate that CBS will move The Good Wife to Friday next year, I still see The Good Wife as a major win for CBS Tuesday at 10p. In a way The Good Wife is a unique and rare show for the network in that it brings them prestige, acclaim, Emmys, and I assume, major ad rates. The show reaches many high income viewers and advertisers seem willing to pay more for that and while it’s not getting a 2.9, most weeks it’s still winning its 10p slot. Plus CBS is so solid virtually everywhere else, they can afford a few less tenths on the one show that brings them acclaim and buzz like no other of their dramas.
But it’s a little disconcerting that between The Good Wife and its time period rival Parenthood (which is another sophisticated, subtle, beautifully written and acted drama), both shows are at best on the low side of a 2.0. Add in the brilliant Fringe which has a sci-fi bent, a genre that usually lends itself to more viewers and there seems to be a trend that the smarter and more you ask your audience to pay attention, the harder it is to maintain good ratings. Just to be clear, in all these cases subtle and sophisticated doesn’t mean boring – these are compelling, exciting dramas.
This reminds me a lot of one of my favorite shows of all time, thirtysomething. It was probably the first “demo hit” at a time when there were only 3 networks. It was never a monster hit and lived on the bubble for most of its 4 year run. All the shows created and executive produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So Called Life, Relativity, Once &Again) were similarly brilliantly subtle and all were ALWAYS on the bubble. Once & Again had a 3 year run. The other two not even a full season.
Even in the cable realm, Mad Men is probably the most acclaimed show on Cable and it can’t get above a .8. Contrast that with AMCs The Walking Dead and there is proof that AMC can bring the masses to the table, they’re just not flocking to Mad Men, well at least not on live viewing. Terriers, in my humble opinion, was the best new drama on all of TV this year. The ratings were so low that it was virtually a forgone conclusion by ep 5, it was probably done. No network could make money off 3 live viewers watching a show.
I am actually just postulating here because I honestly don’t know what the answer is. Maybe in the future, there will be more adult, nuanced dramas that ALSO will be monster ratings hits. Plus Fringe was just renewed and the other dramas (except for Terriers) will most definitely be back next year. So there’s no cause to sound the alarm. I guess I just hope that the lower numbers these shows generate (in comparison to the rest of the “hits” on TV), don’t make the broadcast networks shy about developing more nuanced dramas like these. Based on the exciting development season currently underway, there is much to be optimistic about.