The ‘Empire’ Effect: Networks Bank on Primetime Soaps Over Prestige Dramas

Broadcasters are leaving heady dramas to cable in favor of ratings-friendly brain candy

The new golden age of television is over. For broadcast, at least.

And the networks are starting to realize it.

Where broadcast nets once ruled the primetime Emmy race with dramas like “The West Wing” and “Lost,” cable networks have gained prominence over the past few years. CBS’s “The Good Wife” is the only broadcast network series to be nominated for Outstanding Drama Emmys since 2011.

Broadcasters have tried their hand at more risqué cable-esque fare, like NBC’s “Hannibal,” but the very nature of broadcast has prevented series from going full tilt with the swearing, violence and nudity permitted on cable. And more cerebral programming like AMC’s “Mad Men” don’t deliver the sort of ratings broadcasters need to survive.

So instead of trying to recreate the cable experience, networks are starting to turn to another popular format: soap operas. With juicy secrets, surprises and plot twists, soapy primetime dramas have become audience hits.

The primetime soap renaissance may have started in 2005 with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” a medical show focused more on the complicated lives of its young doctors than anything medical.

Its creator, Shonda Rhimes, has since introduced two more addictive soapy dramas to ABC’s lineup — “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” — and Rhimes has another pilot on order for fall 2015 called “The Catch,” described as both a game of cat and mouse and a collision of cons and lies. The network also has a Jenna Bans project on tap, about a son thought dead returning after 10 years (you can practically hear the “dun dun dunnn!”).

Fox’s record-breaking series, “Empire,” hits all of the soap opera points too — a woman wronged, a dying patriarch, love triangles galore. The show has delivered ratings and permeated pop culture in a way that even the most prestigious drama series never could.

NBC in 2013 tried its hand with “Deception,” a mystery about a dead girl from a rich family, but the Meagan Good vehicle only lasted 11 episodes. On pilot order for fall is a Jill Gordon/Amy Brenneman pilot called “Heart Matters,” which is specifically described as a “medical soap” and two telenovela-inspired series, “The Curse of the Fuentes Women” and, well, “Telenovela.”

CBS seems to be the only network sticking to the script with procedurals and slightly more elevated fare, like “The Good Wife” and “Madam Secretary.” Their pilot slate is no different, with three medical dramas and a few adaptations on tap.

The networks may have realized that to have broad appeal, they need to give their audience fun brain candy to unwind at night. But broadcasters that have been in business since the inception of television won’t give up too easily.

The dramatic prestige for broadcast networks has begun to take the form of limited series, the miniseries/single-season drama hybrid which thus far has been a mixed bag. In the last 15 years, only ABC and CBS have been able to crack the Miniseries Emmy category, with just two entries from CBS and three plus a win (in 2000 for “Anne Frank: The Whole Story”) for ABC.

ABC premieres “American Crime” on Thursday, a slow burning multi-character study about drugs, murder and race which, based on reviews, may be a competitor. Its showrunner, John Ridley, just won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” at last year’s Academy Awards.

For now, though, audiences are saying definitively that they want more TV sorbet — and Cookies.