Networks OD on Serial Dramas

Disappointing open-ended shows lead to development changes

This fall, the networks made good on comedian Fred Allen's famous remark that “imitation is the sincerest form of television.” Hoping to reproduce the success of shows like Fox's 24 and ABC's Lost and Desperate Housewives, networks and studios churned out no fewer than a dozen new serialized dramas.

But the glut of new open-ended shows with season-long story arcs may have hastened the demise of the once hot serialized genre. Only four have received full-season orders, while others appear destined for the trash bin occupied by the season's first cancellation, CBS' Smith. And the effect of these costly failures is already apparent in the networks' development slates.

“Highly serialized dramas appear to carry with them enormous risks, inasmuch as you can't deliver an audience of critical mass,” says producer and former Fox television boss Sandy Grushow.

The current wisdom is that audiences simply don't have the wherewithal to commit their time and attention to so many new serialized shows—no matter how well-crafted and engaging.

That reality has left networks and studios, which spent an average $3 million per episode on serial dramas this season, with little appetite for greenlighting development scripts for more serialized shows. And both are pursuing measures to keep production costs down.

The attempts to replicate recent successes have led some developers to return to the decades-old wisdom of Marcy Carsey, the network-development-executive-turned-producer whose mantra during her tenure at ABC was “put on what's not on.”

Peter Roth, president of top network supplier Warner Bros. Television (WBTV), says his development strategy has always been about filling creative gaps on primetime schedules. “We look at what is not on the air, what is not being represented on the broadcast networks, and at updated variations on familiar themes.”

Despite his own studio's huge investment in this fall's biggest disappointment, NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (WBTV is believed to have spent north of $3 million per episode), Roth believes that studios need to take creative risks going forward.

Dana Walden, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television, echoes that philosophy: “We're trying to develop a very bold slate of ideas rather than chasing the successes of seasons past.” But she insists that, if another 24- or Prison Break-caliber idea walked through her door again, 20th would jump at it, since such series attract viewers that can create lucrative ancillary streams, such as DVD revenue.

For now, Walden is looking at “big-idea” series with ongoing relationship storylines and closed-ended episodes, which can reap two to four times more money in syndication than serialized programs. And in an effort to contain development and episodic costs, her studio is looking to limit big-budget programs to 20% of its new development slate.

On average, one-hour pilots cost studios $5 million, with 30-minute comedies costing half that. Once into series production, non-serialized dramas run about $2.3 million per episode, while sitcoms are $1.3 million. The networks cover roughly 50% of the production budgets through license fees.

Studios are taking aggressive money-saving steps, such as filming outside of Los Angeles to take advantage of tax breaks, shooting more episodes simultaneously and slashing cast salaries. They're also increasingly embracing year-round development to avoid the costly scramble for a limited selection of talent during the traditional development season.

Twentieth, a primary supplier for its sister Fox network, must go into early production on some series since Fox rolls out its fall schedule in August. The studio is now shooting two comedy pilots for Fox and ABC, and Walden hopes to be in early production on a couple of dramas by year's end.

“Certainly, our goal is to roll back budgets on all of our shows,” says Walden. “We have to be very disciplined in how we go about producing our programs.”

On the network side, NBC's pledge to pursue cheaper unscripted programs for the 8-9 p.m. hour as part of its parent company's new “NBCU 2.0” initiative is only the latest in the network's efforts to control programming outlays.

This season's plethora of dramas and lack of comedies created a big and costly imbalance in primetime schedules. Next year's development slates are showing renewed attention to comedies. And producers say they are hoping to see edgier pilots ordered, to increase their appeal to the younger, YouTube demographic, which has steadily fallen away from network TV.

But if studios hope to do that, they need to start taking greater creative risks—particularly when it comes to comedy.

And if networks hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, they need to abandon their faith in the familiar and the formulaic.