Turner Broadcasting is a cable network owner that wants to
play in the broadcast network arena, and little by little, it is getting there
in terms of ratings for its original drama series lineup and with the
advertising dollars those shows take in. It also has a programming development
model more conducive to producing profits, something the broadcast networks
continue to struggle with.
TNT's dramas The
Closer and Rizzoli & Isles
draw viewer numbers that would make them primetime broadcast successes, while
others such as Falling Skies, Leverage, Franklin & Bash and Memphis
Beat, to name a few, draw viewer numbers that put them at the top of cable
viewership during their seasonal runs.
Ditto for original scripted dramas like Burn Notice, Royal Pains
and Psych on USA, and Sons of Anarchy and Justified on FX. Even though the viewer numbers might be lower than
the most-watched broadcast network series (many of the top cable series draw
between 3.5 and 7 million viewers in live telecasts), the cable original
programming model overall is more profitable, and the broadcast networks are
noticing. Now they are even publicly saying that they might start emulating
cable in that regard.
In preparing for a TV season, the Big Four broadcast
networks buy about 50 spec scripts each and develop a portion of those into
pilots; some make it to the schedule and many do not. And while initial orders
for fall shows are 13 episodes, if a show succeeds, it gets that back order of
9 more. With ratings so fragmented, more new shows with marginal ratings are getting
those back nine orders.
But broadcasters may be starting to realize that developing
more is not necessarily better. They are beginning to schedule some of their
series, both new and returning, so that they run consecutively in first run
with no repeat episodes in between. And they are ordering, at least for midseason,
fewer episodes than the traditional 13.
That's much closer to the norm for cable networks, which basically
order 12 episodes of scripted dramas instead of the 22 for a season. Cable
networks also do not buy 50 spec scripts and develop dozens of pilots. The
usually have a much more austere development process, selecting a handful of
series to shoot pilots for. Those are the ones that get on the air. And they almost
always stay on for the time it takes to gather enough episodes for syndication.
The point could be debated, but it is possible that if the
broadcast networks were under the gun to develop less, shoot fewer pilots and
keep what they do select on the air, it might result in more successes in the
way cable networks have experienced. It is a lot to ask of viewers to sample 23
new shows in the fall across the broadcast networks, pretty much all at the
Cable networks each premiere a couple of new shows per
season, offering a much easier load for audiences to sample. And the quality of
each episode might be better as a result.
Advertisers certainly wouldn't complain if the broadcast
networks didn't flood the fall schedules with new programming that winds up
being canceled or declared a failure before audiences even get to really watch
them-and then having to move their ad units to different shows.
During the Television Critics Association winter press tour
last month, NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt told The New York Times, "The beauty of cable
is you make three pilots, you pick up three pilots and you declare them all
hits, and they run for five years."
Fox is running its midseason drama series Touch, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and The Finder, straight through with no
repeats. Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly told the Times, "I do think we're at a place where the 13-episode pattern
has appeal. There are a lot of shows that would be better off creatively doing
fewer than 22 episodes and the viewers would probably enjoy them more."
On ABC, entertainment president Paul Lee has chosen to run
all eight episodes of midseason sci-fi series The River in pattern.
CBS is the one exception among the Big Four broadcasters with
seemingly no desire to alter the traditional broadcast programming pattern. CBS
entertainment president Nina Tassler says her network likes the current model
and has no plans to alter it.
She told the Times,
"We're doing something right, and not just good enough to get by. We're doing
But unlike the other broadcast networks, almost all of CBS'
scripted dramas are procedural crime dramas and they all repeat extraordinarily
That's not the case for many serialized dramas. On Jan. 26, ABC's
Grey's Anatomy drew only 3.9 million
viewers in repeat and recorded a 1.3 18-49 rating on Thursday nights at 9. It
was out-rated by Univision telenovela La
Que No Podía Amar, which drew 4.2
million viewers and a 1.8 18-49 rating in the hour.
If there was ever a time when advertisers might have a say
in what direction the broadcast networks go on this, it is now. The broadcast
networks know the system is broke and for the first time they have publicly
said that something closer to a cable system might be a direction they would
consider going in. If the ad community and their media agencies agree, now is
the time to speak up and weigh in.