Analogies are often facile things, contrivances designed to hammer home a theme when a light tap of the mallet would suffice. But in light of the fact that it’s a) set in the advertising world and b) is the most self-reflexive show on television, the prospect of using Mad Men as a lens through which to observe the broadcast TV marketplace is too alluring to pass up. In a sense, each of the Big Four networks has a near-perfect analogue in one of the beautiful losers at Cooper Sterling Draper Dead Guy Harry Hamlin Whatever.
CBS is clearly Roger Sterling. Les Moonves’ silver fox flagship is bold, cocksure and is so damned good at doing its job that it almost makes the business of broadcast look easy. A fine-tuned revenue machine—its unparalleled retransmission consent numbers and homegrown output leaves it less exposed to the vicissitudes of the ad market than its rivals—CBS is something of an impenetrable fortress. But a chest X-ray and a full cardio workup might suggest that the aging network is one highball-and-tobacco binge away from catastrophic collapse.
Although it probably would rather be Peggy Olson, ABC is Joan Harris. Unapologetically feminine, assertive and absolutely devastating when in its comfort zone, the network boasts some of the very few must-watch series on the broadcast dial. Unfortunately, when men aren’t leering at Joan like a horny wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon, they dismiss her altogether. (Perhaps if she wore a football helmet around the home office the boys would take her more seriously.) And while she always appears composed and unruffled—the picture of self-possession—under the surface she’s paddling furiously like a swan on Dexedrine. (It’s a hard-knock life when you’re on track to finish last in the ratings race for the third year running.)
Fox is Pete Campbell. Youngish but starting to age faster than he really should be, the glib smarmball has embraced the ephemera of Southern California after making a hash of things back East. But while many of the attributes he once relied on have all but disintegrated (looking at you, American Idol and New Girl), Pete wavers between archly gaming the system and total system collapse. Like his implacably receding hairline, his mojo is really starting to wear thin. Although he’s got a string of successes under his needlepoint belt, the account exec is going to have to make some big moves in L.A. if he’s going to get back to his A game.
Which leaves NBC. No. 1 with a bullet, the Peacock’s spirit animal is none other than Don Draper. Everything looks fantastic! Look at that mug! Look at those ratings! But take away his gilded props—the lovely wife, the full-time gig, the preternatural ability to tap into the idylls and anxieties of the American collective consciousness—and holy smokes, this guy is damaged goods. Look upon Thursday nights, ye Comedy Gods, and despair! Where once Don strode Madison Avenue like a colossus—not long ago, NBC could spackle dreck like Veronica’s Closet between Friends and Seinfeld and still pull a 13.2 in the demo—now he’s a weepy Cyrano drinking himself into the laundry bin and using Freddy Rumsen as his sock puppet. (Year-to-date, NBC is eking out a 1.1 in the 18-49 demo on the crucial night.)
Cue the defenestration title theme, because it’s time to explore the heart of darkness that is the broadcast TV marketplace.