The LimitedRatings drop. Revenues shrink. Originality fades. The next big thing: short-run series 7/11/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Gavin Polone is fed up with lawyers, cops and robbers. Four Law & Orders and three CSIs? "Viewers are getting tired of shows that all seem alike,"says Polone, one of Hollywood's most plugged-in producers. Even a spiritual series like CBS's Joan of Arcadia, has a crime angle: Joan's father has to be a cop.
Polone's panacea: Revelations, a sweeping NBC drama about apocalyptic religion, based on the New Testament book of Revelations. The former Hollywood agent and manager is known for delivering quirky shows, such as The WB's hit Gilmore Girls
and HBO's Emmy-winning Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Revelations
is, well, a revelation to him. NBC ordered it as a limited series, eight hour-long episodes, rather than the typical 22 he pitched.
Why the switch? As networks look for new ways to lure fickle viewers, the appeal of limited series could grow. A hit is a slick brand-builder in a 200-channel universe. Plus, there's the cachet and a potential revenue windfall. And they can deliver a huge ratings boost. For broadcasters, a short-run drama could fill sweeps or inject life into a sagging midseason. On cable, a limited summer series is a seductive alternative to broadcast reruns.
But Polone has his own theory: "Networks seem to have a fear of doing something original," he says. "That's
why they push it into a limited series."
And these series, even with a mixed track record, are popping up all over TV schedules.
On July 11, USA Network debuted six-hour 4400, about thousands of missing people who return to Earth. Eight days later, TNT kicks off a limited counterterrorism drama, The Grid, a co-production with the BBC. TNT also plans Into the West,
a 12-hour series on the American West executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks TV, for summer 2005. Sci Fi Channel is slating Nine Lives,
an 18-hour drama about the near-death experiences of nine people,
courtesy of DreamWorks TV
next year. In the works at HBO is a 10-hour series set in World War II's Pacific theater.
Even broadcast networks—which have virtually abandoned miniseries—are dipping in the pool. NBC is plotting a 12-hour series on Motown Records founder Berry Gordy for the 2005-06 season. ABC will give a six-hour treatment to Empire,
a tale of ancient Rome.
One reason for the uptick in limited series is the perception of them as blue-chip properties.
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly calls the flashy, big-budget, star-power productions "event series. By definition, this is something different."
Writers and producers get a big canvas to tell their tale. "It gives you creative license to think in a larger scope," says Justin Falvey, co-head of DreamWorks TV, which is producing Into the West. In it, six two-hour movies will follow Native American and American families spanning 1830 to 1890.
But the downside is pronounced.
Many of these efforts are unsuccessful. ABC's hyped Dinotopia
fell flat two years ago, and Kingdom Hospital
needed life support. NBC's drug family saga Kingpin
started with a limited run and never earned a full order. Plus, the outlay is significant: Production costs for a limited series can soar past $20 million, and, to date, few have scored significant revenue returns.
In today's crowded TV landscape, networks are desperate for attention. Thanks to TiVo-like personal recorders, viewers are freed from the shackles of scheduling. Miss a show? You can buy the season on DVD. What networks crave is an event, akin to the excitement that builds around each Sopranos
episode. It gives viewers a reason to watch the first play.
"We can say to our audience, 'This is something special,'" says TNT Senior Vice President of Original Programming Michael Wright. "People can invest in it, then move on." Also, given the glut of legal dramas and Bachelor-esque reality, a limited series can signal diversity. Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel, likens limited series to experiments. "If you love the idea but maybe it's edgy, too off-the-wall or too serious," she says, "you can try six or eight hours."
NBC's Reilly agrees. He's considering a period crime drama but admits that "period pieces are always a hard sell in series television." A limited-series format, he says, is a low-risk tryout.
It's also a nebulous entity, blending elements of miniseries and recurring dramas. "It is like a novel instead of short stories," says Les Boheme, who penned Sci Fi Channel's 20-hour Spielberg-produced limited series Taken. Boheme is now working on Nine Lives.
Typically, a limited drama spans six to 13 hours. Writers try to make episodes stand alone, so new viewers can enter during the series. Also, there is a clear beginning and end to the effort.
For instance, TNT's The Grid,
starring Dylan McDermott, debuts with a two-hour premiere, then airs in hour-long episodes on Monday nights. The subject matter is timely, but other recent terrorism dramas, like Threat Matrix
on ABC and The Agency
on CBS, have tanked. NBC tried a two-hour original movie, Homeland Security, but that missed the mark, too.
creator Tracy Alexander thinks her specific time frame will make the difference. "You create almost a novel for television. You can focus on characters and make them rich," says Alexander, whose credits include the Emmy-nominated Lifetime movie We Were the Mulvaneys. She wanted a compelling storyline and depth, which she believes the traditional two-hour TV movie couldn't deliver and a longer series might be unable to sustain.
The form, though, is hardly revolutionary.
set the precedent 27 years ago. More recently, HBO raised the bar with From Earth to the Moon
and Band of Brothers. In December 2002, Sci Fi's Taken
averaged nearly 5 million viewers, five times the channel's average.
Of course, a limited series isn't a replacement for a Law & Order
or Nip/Tuck. It's a hoped-for attention grabber. "These things go into prime real estate," says Reilly. "If we are going to take off a West Wing
an event series has to have the same quality and sales potential."
But achieving that is costly.
is said to have a $30 million budget; Taken
came with a $35 million price tag. Per hour, limited series cost more than recurring dramas, which tend to run $2 million per hour episode. What drives up the tab is special effects, particularly for thrillers and sci-fi stories. Exotic locales also up the ante. TNT's The Gri
d—said to be a $24 million production—was shot in two locations, Morocco and Toronto.
Another factor is talent. For the networks, brand names are an obvious draw, with a catch: "Feature-film talent doesn't want to get tied up nine months of the year," says Lions Gate Television President Kevin Beggs, producer of 5 Days Til Midnight, which starred Timothy Hutton. Famed director Martin Scorsese is executive-producing Sci Fi's upcoming thriller The Twelve
and USA Network's Frankenstein
The investment hinges on the touted returns: Limited series have the potential to sell well internationally and on DVD. HBO's Band of Brothers
took in $49.3 million in DVD sales in 2003, making it the year's top-selling television DVD. DreamWorks'Taken
brought in $11 million, approximately as much as the first season of CSI.
Still, the business model is a work in progress. One major problem: Limited series aren't designed to reach 100 episodes, the benchmark for selling a drama into syndication. It's also the moment when studios recoup their investment and creators get rich. That fact gives some producers pause.
"You can spend time and energy on a 10-hour limited series or a show that could sell into syndication," says DreamWorks TV's Falvey. "It takes just as much time to develop both."
Which is why Revelations
executive producer Gavin Polone would rather make a 22-episode series than settle for a limited version of his vision. "It's not how I sold it to them," he sighs. "But when you go into business with TV networks, they have the power to dictate."
|Anatomy of a Limited Series|
|Short run:||Typically six-13 hours|
|Scheduling ploys:||Plays over consecutive nights or one episode per week|
|Big-budget productions:||Some price tags climb above $20 million.|
|Back-end business:||International and DVD sales help recoup costs.|
|Rerun options:||Cable channels slate marathons or weekly repeats; broadcasters can rerun on sister cable channels.|
|Future prospects:||Some spawn ongoing series, like Sci Fi's BattleStar Galactica, or return for short second seasons.|