December 9, 2013

NIELSENWAR: “The Good Wife” and the Best Showrunner Emmy That Doesn’t Exist


NOTE:  Weekly and Season To Date Ratings Charts Are Below

The war is over:  victory is television’s (make that “television”), which after decades of being considered the Fredo Corleone of dramatic narrative is now–to the evident recent discomfort of the film critics at the NY Times and LA Times–taken as seriously as the kind created for the big screen.  There is a crucial distinction, though, between small-screen storytelling and the multiplex variety, and it’s often obscured by the way we, as a culture, tend to focus on what’s new and shiny (hey, Orange Is the New Black!  wow, Masters of Sex!  look, The Returned!).  While a movie or a stage play is finished after 2 hours or so, at least until the sequel arrives a year or more later; TV is made for the long haul, with 10, 13, 18, or even 22 episodes per year that have to be produced (best case scenario) for many years to come.  That’s why within the industry, the writer/producers who are most prized aren’t necessarily the ones who have startlingly original concepts, but the ones who understand how to manage a writers’ room and the practical pressures of making the sausage, while still retaining their show’s creative vision, carrying a series year in and year out past the inevitable slow periods to syndication and beyond.  The Emmys have always muddled this special skill by combining new and old shows for their awards, but in a perfect world, there would be a Best Showrunner Emmy, with competition limited to the writer/producers in charge of series that have completed 3 seasons on the air or more, honoring a very particular talent showcased by this medium above all others.

Who would be among the nominees?  Shonda Rhimes is superb at showrunning; Grey’s Anatomy may not be what it once was, but to still be one of its network’s most popular dramas while preparing to start its second decade on the air is remarkable.  Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Graham Yost (Justified), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) and, on the comedy side, Michael Schur (Parks & Recreation)–all have kept their shows vital and exciting, stretching their respective mythologies while never losing sight of their essential cores.  Matthew Weiner has almost singlehandedly invented and sustained the TV art-house drama with Mad MenGame of Thrones, under David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, has seemed to improve in every new season.  On another end of the TV spectrum, Dick Wolf has redefined the ability to keep shows on the air, seemingly forever.  Earlier this year, Vince Gilligan, with Breaking Bad, managed perhaps the most difficult feat of all, sticking the landing as he brought his series to an end to the satisfaction of just about everyone.

For the first half of the 2013-14 TV season, though, the hypothetical Best Showrunner Emmy would go by acclamation (easy enough, since we have the only vote) to the team of Robert and Michelle King, creators and showrunners of THE GOOD WIFE, which has so far been having a sensational fifth season on CBS, its best since its first–and maybe even better than that.

The Good Wife had lost a step last season.  It was still smart and entertaining, with plenty of sparkling dialogue and one of the best casts (regular and recurring) on television, but there were outright blunders (most notoriously the introduction of Kalinda’s ex-husband), muddles (Maura Tierney’s character, who was a friend, then a foe, without ever making sense), and just an overall sense that the show had surrounded itself with ruts.  Another political campaign for Peter, more will-they-or-won’t-they for Alicia and Will… we’d seen it all before.  The ratings, which have never been particularly good, weren’t all that much worse than they’d been before, but the show was losing momentum.

The Kings saw what was happening, and took action.  In the short term, Kalinda’s ex vanished sooner than originally planned.  But their master plan didn’t take fruit until the very last moment of May’s season finale, when Alicia decided to leave the firm that had been the show’s central setting for the prior 4 seasons, essentially blowing the series up from its foundations.  This season, everything has been super-charged with anger and betrayals; even the routine cases of the week have undertones of ruptured feelings and distrust.  The actors, especially Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles, have all been given new sides of their familiar characters to play, and the once-predictable relationships have gotten scrambled.  Perhaps best of all, viewer loyalties are suddenly uncertain, as there are emotional arguments to be made on either side of the breach.

Pulling off a major shift like this is enormously risky–we all know long-running series where the characters have suddenly changed jobs, moved to new cities or discovered previously unknown relatives, and it’s felt like nothing more than desperation.  The Kings have not only kept all the important throughlines of their characters and stories rolling, but have made them more complicated and urgent.  The new Good Wife may not be perfect (the currently nothing-but-irritating Jason O’Mara character had better have a hell of a payoff), but it’s thoroughly improved, and making that happen in a show’s fifth season on the air is what makes for the winner of a Best Showrunner Emmy–or would, if there was one.




Week by Week Prime time Averages

2013 Season — Last Four Weeks

Adult 18-49 Rating (Live+Same Day)


      Wk8    Wk9      Wk10     Wk11













Season to Date Averages

Weeks 1-11

Prime time Adult 18-49 Rating (Live+Same Day)


         2013……..2012…..% chg

















About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."