Significant Others, a wacky, critics' fave, wasn't intended for cable. The show, populated by talented but unknown actors, was ordered as a low-cost pilot for NBC. Jeff Gaspin, head of Bravo and NBC's alternative department, loved the project—and decided it was a better fit for Bravo.
"It's all about more for less in every conceivable way," says Peter Tortorici, the show's executive producer and former president of CBS Entertainment. "None of us on the above-the-line side are working for fees network people would call high-priced. What we really wanted was the opportunity."
enjoys acclaim, although its ratings are midrange. Tortorici hopes the show will slowly build and possibly be picked up by one of NBC-Universal's bigger networks. That type of development, in which projects might be pitched to NBC but end up on USA or Bravo, is a way for NBC-Universal to leverage its distribution outlets, company execs say. The result? Agents come to pitch meetings with a variety of budget options.
"Everyone would love to be on NBC in a cherry time period," says Kevin Reilly, NBC's incoming president of entertainment. "But talent and agents understand that the big-picture game is staying on the air. We're willing to do some creative deal-making to accommodate that."
The caveat: The new development model won't apply to every project presented to NBC.
"This isn't something that's going to be standard practice," Reilly says, "but we'll do it with certain properties." What NBC sees is a chance to save money by having the flexibility to move projects from one asset to another.
"There's a lot of waste in these companies where you buy scripts and ideas and develop them," he says. "They go in the garbage, and you never share them with your sister companies. There's no reason we can't share it with another co-owned entity, as long as we have the blessing of the talent."
Reilly has some experience with developing lower-cost shows that rival any on prime time. As FX's programming president, he was instrumental in developing The Shield. That show ended up winning Golden Globe and Emmy Awards even though its budget was about $500,000 less per episode than a typical network prime time cop show.
Learning what to keep and what to cut is harder than it looks, says David Grant, outgoing president of Fox Television Studios, which produces The Shield. In his first attempt at building a more cost-effective TV show, Grant and Fox TV Studios produced 22 episodes of FX's The Chronicle, in which Rena Sofer played a tabloid newspaper reporter who learns that everything printed is actually true. The show didn't last, but the lessons learned did. When you build a show, Grant says, you have to build its cost structure from the ground up.
That experience paid dividends with The Shield, with FX picking up season four last week. Had the executives made the wrong choices, they might have ended up with another failure instead of a ground-breaking hit.
While putting together any TV show is a big gamble, in low-cost development, executives have to place additional bets on what can stay and what can go. Often, in search of a hit and in fear of losing their jobs, they throw money, time, and talent at a project. But, in the age of 200 channels and no repeats, that kitchen-sink approach is too expensive.
"No one is smart enough to know what can break through without bells or whistles," Grant says. "Some bells or whistles make all the difference." For example, hiring Michael Chiklis as star of The Shield
"was more expensive than we had budgeted for," he points out. "We modestly broke the budget to bring him in, and it paid off."
But other things could be cut. In the show's second episode, a funeral is held for a fallen comrade. Instead of having 50 police cars on-site, the production just filmed a small, simple funeral in a graveyard.
If NBC-Universal succeeds in implementing a new development model, it will upset some of Hollywood's traditional thinking. While every executive in the business is looking for cheaper ways to produce shows, there's no agreement on the best way to accomplish that goal.
"I believe it's 180 degrees the opposite," says Gary Newman, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television. Shows done at a better economic model need to start at inception. They need to be built with that focus first and foremost. "Once you have conceived your show, written the pilot, and developed the characters, you can't put the genie back in the bottle. You can't say, 'Well, the network didn't like it, but maybe the cable network will.'"
Although its approach to cost-cutting is different from NBC-Universal's, executives at Twentieth Century Fox Television know the budget for prime time must decrease. As a result, it is dedicating a new studio, Fox 21, to developing low-cost shows. Twentieth's former head of drama development, Jane Leisner, will helm the venture, with the goal of "controlling the escalating costs of TV production by rethinking the economics of making shows," according to the studio.
"Our expectation and desire," says Newman, "is to be in business with less experienced creators and filmmakers who haven't been spoiled by the excesses of our business, people whose burning passion is to see their idea make it to television. Then, we want to enable them to embrace doing things in a more disciplined way."
Passion and discipline don't always mix, but TV's tough economics demand just that kind of creative alchemy.