Syndication: Financing the 'Limited Series'On-demand viewing is allowing broadcasters to come on strong with shorter-run serials next season 5/20/2013 12:01:00 AM Eastern
The newest trend this upfront season is the "limited
series," which are series planned from the start to air far less than the
traditional 22 episodes, and more like 10 to 15 episodes.
All four of the major broadcast networks ordered limited
series to air next year. ABC picked up Betrayal and Resurrection,
both of which come from ABC Studios partnering with other production entities.
CBS will air Warner Bros.' Hostages, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and Intelligence,
a coproduction between CBS and ABC Studios.
NBC has currently ordered 10 episodes of Dracula from
NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films, the London-based production house that also
produces Downton Abbey, and 15 episodes of Crisis, an intense
drama from 20th Century Fox Television. The order for Dracula
could grow, but it also could stand at 10.
Finally, Fox has three limited series (it prefers the term
"event series") in the works: 24: Live Another Day, Wayward Pines from
M. Night Shyamalan and Cosmos, which will be executive produced by Seth
MacFarlane and is a remake of the popular Carl Sagan documentary on space and
existence that aired on PBS in 1980.
Of course, limited series -- also known as miniseries -- are
nothing new, but until now they've mostly been confined to cable.
Over the past two years, cable and PBS have had terrific
success with dramas that run uninterrupted for 10 or so weeks, shows such as
PBS' Downton Abbey, AMC's The Walking Dead and History's The
Bible. Even the Emmy-winning The Kennedys put Reelz on the map for a
while. The broadcast networks, envying that success, are trying to figure out
how to duplicate it while sticking with a workable economic model.
Years ago, miniseries were common. They included such
popular event programming as Roots; Shogun, which Fox is in the
process of remaking; and The Thorn Birds. In recent years, however, they
had become far too expensive for broadcast networks because they don't repeat
and there were only limited ways to make money on the completed production.
The arrival of well-financed subscription video on demand
(SVOD) services has changed all of that.
Netflix, in particular, as well as the up-and-coming Amazon
Prime and other services are willing to pay top dollar to acquire original
fare. Subscribers like to watch serialized shows on demand, making them very
appealing to SVOD providers. That development has made studios far more willing
to produce the expensive serialized dramas that SVOD services and their
"Home entertainment and SVOD providers are probably going to
be big supporters of this model financially and that will mean a slight change
in the way broadcasters treat these shows," says Marion Edwards, president of
international distribution for 20th Century Fox Television. "Broadcasters
understand because there's no longer any value in a four-year-old show for a
broadcast network. They need to always have fresh programming, so the terms of
licensing are changing."
This summer, CBS will air the Stephen Spielberg-produced Under
the Dome, which will get a concurrent run on Amazon Prime's instant
A concurrent SVOD run won't be the case for the series that
the broadcast networks ordered for next year. In the brave new world of SVOD,
no two deals are the same, but the networks ordered most of these limited
series for one season. After that season airs, the producing studios will be
free to take it to the SVOD market. If the network orders a second season, and
a third, and so on, the studio will be able to sell each season to SVOD
services once that season has been completed on the originating network.
That's a far faster turnaround than traditional syndication.
Studios used to have to wait several years before they could sell shows to TV
stations and cable networks to recoup their initial production costs. Limited
series don't have much value in traditional syndication because viewers aren't
that interested in watching repeats of a soapy drama on a TV station's or cable
network's schedule, but they often want to catch up on what they've missed on
their own time via on-demand services.
"In the bad old days, TV networks used to air a show during
a regular season of 39 weeks, including 13 repeats, and then you would head
into the summer repeat season," says Jeffrey Schlesinger, who
was recently promoted to Warner Bros.' head of worldwide television
distribution. "But in this era of short attention spans, networks have to
concentrate their efforts and keep people engaged over 10 to 15 episodes
without breaks in the action. It's more reflective of society in general. It's
tough to keep people engaged over 22 episodes for nine months."
This past season, Fox had success with The Following,
a 15-episode series. The short order was, at least in part, dictated by star
Kevin Bacon only being available to do 15 episodes, but the model worked. Fox
was able to run the series 15 weeks in a row, and viewers tuned in.
Conversely, NBC's Revolution, which opened big last
fall, saw ratings declines when it returned in March after a long layoff. But
it's difficult to keep a show like Revolution, which is complicated to
produce and has lots of special effects, on the air for 22 weeks in a row.
"I think what we are seeing is serialized shows have always
had a place out there, but because of the underlying economics, broadcast
networks always have needed two or three runs to make them pay off," says one
"Higher costs associated with serialized shows made them
even more challenging for networks. To run original episodes in pattern, you
needed to produce episodes earlier and you needed the network to pick up the
show earlier. All of the complexity associated with serial shows was making it
a difficult genre to program. And studios were loath to produce them because
the back-end potential was limited in terms of both foreign and domestic sales.
That model has now changed."
The four major broadcast nets talked all last week in New
York about being flexible enough to accommodate limited series, but frontrunner
CBS is taking a more case-by-case approach.
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said during a
pre-upfront press breakfast that the "highly serialized" Hostages was
initially designed as a traditional 22-episode order but was scaled down to 15
only when showrunners laid out a detailed, two-season outline. In general, she
said, "we don't need place-fillers" but CBS is open to using limited series as
a way of attaining the net's goal of more originals and fewer repeats.
Limited series are just one way that technology has forever
"Everything has been disrupted," says Edwards.
"We are all doing things differently. It takes what had become a very
complacent TV business and makes it into a very dynamic one."