Open the book, change the channel

At this year’s Emmy awards, for the first time in history, every Best Drama nominee was broadcast by a cable channel rather than a network.

These shows take viewers all over the nation, from a New Mexico meth lab in “Breaking Bad” to “Mad Men”’s 1960s New York ad agency, to “Homeland”’s secretive Washington CIA halls.

Many stories could only be found in the pages of the latest novel until a few years ago. The tales spun on cable television were few and far between; HBO experimented with heavier dramas such as “The Sopranos,” but none had really mastered the novel-style pacing. Dramas such as “Law and Order” changed week to week, and stories such as “Lost” would stretch months and hold off resolutions.

That is, until cable mastered the 12-episode season.

The compelling tales that would span hundreds of pages now seem a little dated. Don’t get me wrong, books still allow readers to paint vivid images in their minds. You can’t tell me you weren’t a little disappointed when the final “Harry Potter” movie didn’t go exactly as you imagined.

But cable now tells the same tales that only books could for years and deals with taboo topics the networks won’t touch. And they get to the point, whereas some books can become tied up in descriptions. Showtime’s “Dexter” tells a concise 12-week story. Fans only get those 12 episodes a year, but episodes are new for 12 straight weeks, and the subject matter is much more adult.

“Dexter” follows FBI blood splatter analyst Dexter Morgan, who moonlights as a serial killer. However, he follows a code; he only kills other serial killers. Obviously, this creates incredible moral questions and forces the audience to consider the character’s true nature.

Heavy stuff, no?

CBS once tried to show “Dexter” episodes. Because of the show’s graphic nature, through, much content had to be edited. The Parents Television Council protested the airing, and CBS quickly shelved the show. Networks are so censored that cable’s darker plots just can’t exist on ABC, NBC or CBS.

Novels have flourished so well because they provide plots that hook people for hours on end, as opposed to a film that’s over and done. When cable came along and introduced a plethora of options, suddenly the options at audiences’ fingertips outranked the newest John Grisham novel’s cost.

Novel prices have also hurt the publishing industry. Many people choose to read their books via Kindle, and purchasing a virtual novel can potentially be half the hard copy’s purchasing cost.

We haven’t reached the novel’s death, but we’ll soon see only literature series flourishing, or novels that involve familiar characters. Many authors stick with just a few characters. For example, Janet Evanovich focuses on the Stephanie Plume novels, and the late Robert B. Parker had several different detectives he followed.

Novels do have one distinct advantage over cable shows, which is readers’ freedom finish it at their leisure. TV viewers are confined to a weekly wait.

Perhaps the publishing world will soon reach a point where one chapter will be released a week. The only problem is the stories need to be fresh, and they need to be compelling.

If authors become stuck on one character or series, they could hit a rut. Authors will need to come up with not only involving characters, but involving situations for them. With an inventive cable series, it’s not good enough for characters to simply be interesting.

TV and the novel have their ups and downs. Television will never take us to a point where reading is no longer necessary, but it cannot be denied that cable is more inventive now than ever. I am incredibly excited about what the future holds for both mediums.

Stay tuned.

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About Karsten Burgstahler

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at or 536-3311 ext.255.

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