Now that year-end top TV lists are coming out (mine will be coming in a few weeks), there are a few interesting trends to note. People base their opinions not so much on what shows earn the most amount of viewers or are talked about constantly at water coolers (for offices that still have water coolers, obviously this would not fly at the Coors Brewery, where people gather around the kegs of beer). These shows are matters of opinion and, for the most part, are reflections of a shows calendar year.
The lists will be filled with shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Friday Night Lights (note: these are all dramas, as comedies are a completely different animal). No list will include The Killing unless, of course, it is written by Veena Sudd herself, where she will continue to compare her own copied show to The Sopranos and The Wire.
The main theme that will run through most of these lists is that there are very few network shows included in them. Networks have fallen aside in the last few years, and especially with the departure of Lost from the schedule. There is no more 24, no Alias, no West Wing. In fact, a network show has not won a Best Drama Emmy since 2005, and in the last 3 years, only a total of 6 network shows were nominated for the award (out of 19).
So what has happened to the network shows, and why is all the creativity on cable channels (Showtime, HBO, AMC, USA, FX, etc)?
The main reason is creative control. In general, cable channels are allowed to have more freedom in terms of theme, language and dialogue. Networks are not allowed to swear, the roughest words being ass or bitch. This gives a sort of realism to the cable channels that allow for the writers to push the envelope. Language does not make a show good, though, but he maturity of the dialogue means that they are going to attract more mature viewers and thus give the writers the ability to write to these viewers and not pull punches. Similarly the themes on cable channels are usually much more mature than networks, whose main goal is attract viewers and entertain them.
Seasons on cable channels are also only 13 episodes and run consecutively, as opposed to the networks, in which run 22 episodes broken up from September to May. This allows the show to become more focused and weed out some of the filler. There are very rarely fluff episodes designed to fill an order. Every minute is precious on a cable channel, and every minute fits into an overall story. Networks, on the other hand, are forced to come up with B storylines to keep the episode count up, and these storylines are oftentimes stale and pointless, and serve in just angering the audience rather than captivating them.
The audience of most network shows, while larger, isn't interested in tuning in every single week or wanting to devote part of their brain to remembering characters or situations. They want to be entertained, and they want to be entertained in an hour and have a satisfying conclusion to their devoted time. This is why shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and NCIS succeed: a problem arises, complications occur, and it is all solved in an hour. Shows like Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Whitney succeed because their viewers are idiots.
Cable shows, on the other hand, have a more complex job and story to tell, and in the best examples, a small piece of a first episode of a season may not pay off until 10 episodes later. But the audience is devoted to the show, possibly obsessed, and this gives the writers the freedom to go at their own pace and to let things cook before serving. Fewer people get these channels than the free to own network ones, so ratings don't have to be as high, and usually aren't. Money is made in other ways, especially through dvd sales and recognition through awards.
This is not to say that network shows don't have a benefit or spot in society. CSI, Criminal Minds, SVU, these are all shows I enjoy on a regular basis. They are entertaining procedurals, and there is something to say for shows that will wrap up in that hour.
But I would never rank them among the best shows on television (with the exception of Lost when it was on, which may be the greatest network show of all time). There is nothing more satisfying than the season finale of Breaking Bad every year, when each tiny and seemingly unimportant clue or piece of dialogue pays off in a big way. It's the difference between reading Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Both are good, but LOTR is ever so much more satisfying and complex.