The final season of ABC's Lost, which bows Feb. 2, promises a payoff for loyal viewers as the show's complex mythology will (hopefully) at long last be solved. But perhaps symbolically, the end of a series that inspired such rabid devotion may also portend the twilight of the networks' recent proclivity for serialized dramas. With increasingly rare exceptions such as ABC's FlashForward, the networks are pumping out fewer serialized shows, and even trying to transform the ones that are on-air into more close-ended programs.
Even as DVR penetration increases, serialized dramas, says one network executive, “are really hard to sustain. I have great respect for shows like Desperate Housewives that can keep it going. On the other end of the spectrum you've got Heroes, which is not quite one-and-done, but pretty close.”
Ratings don't lie
And ratings trends support this strategy. Fox's critically acclaimed 24 has seen a modest drop-off this year, and one-time rookie sensation Heroes has sunk to new lows in its fourth season.
As the economics of television have become increasingly challenging amid viewer fragmentation, back-end potential has become even more critical. Unlike crime procedurals, which seem to run endlessly on ad-supported cable and in syndication, serials have always been a much tougher sell in the syndication market.
ABC's Grey's Anatomy may have sold to Lifetime for $1.2 million per episode, but Lost and Heroes both went for well under $500,000 per episode. By contrast, last year The Mentalist and freshman procedural NCIS: Los Angeles both sold for more than $2 million an episode, the latter after just a handful of airings on CBS. The top-rated off-network weekly series are crime procedurals—CSI: NY, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, CSI: Miami, Bones and House.
“I think we're seeing the decline of these shows,” says Chuck Larsen, president of distribution consulting firm October Moon Television, of serialized dramas. “The networks were kind of slow to realize that serialized shows just don't repeat well.” But they appear to realize it now, including with their current series.
Fox took pains to market J.J. Abrams' Fringe as a series that didn't require a Lost-sized commitment. And while Grey's still turns on the personal entanglements of its main characters, recent seasons have put more emphasis on the jaw-dropping medical case of the week.
A narrower pipeline
The pipelines are also lighter on serialized fare. ABC, the most serial-heavy network, has only a handful of overtly serialized dramas in development, including the soap Matadors and Generation Y, an adaptation of a Scandinavian series that alternates between the characters' present-day lives and their senior year in high school a decade earlier. And it's telling that the drama that Abrams has in development at NBC is much more in the procedural mold.
NBC, which is attempting to turn around a years-long ratings slide, has a total of 18 pilots in development, including David E. Kelley's legal drama Kindreds and remakes of Prime Suspect and The Rockford Files.
A network executive noted that while Heroes inspired a very loyal audience, the series' precipitous ratings decline has been a disappointment. Serialized dramas, the executive says, “are a huge risk. The opportunity for [failure] is greater. We need to get things kick-started. The feeling was rather than try to take a shot on these big arching [series], we can do some really good close-ended dramas that don't have that kind of risk.”