Everybody knows the old saw regarding the three most important things about real estate: “Location, location, location!” Once upon a time—before networks began shuffling shows around like Texas Hold ’Em dealers and when there was no such thing as TiVo—the same could have been said about the prime time schedule. Hit shows owned their time slots forever, turning them into locations; in the days of the Big Three, ABC, CBS and NBC were themselves destinations on certain nights.
Those days are long gone, of course, but networks can still make themselves destinations. It just takes the Rule of Three.
Last Wednesday in New York, at the annual Walter Kaitz Dinner to celebrate diversity in the cable industry, I ran into John Sykes. John reminded me that I had once told him, back when he was running VH1 and had put two watercooler shows on the air (Pop-Up Video and Behind the Music), that he only needed one more hot show to make the network—long regarded as MTV’s neglected stepchild—something other than a venue for second-rate comedians such as the watermelon-smashing Gallagher or reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati. When the network launched Storytellers, VH1’s identity crisis was solved; viewers knew what to expect when heading to that location.
Sykes, who’s developing new lifestyle channels for those who have aged out of the VH1 demo, no doubt knows that those projects will also face the challenge of finding a trifecta of shows that eventually will make them destinations.
You don’t need to look any further than FX to see the Rule of Three at play. After years of meandering about, the network has found its niche, gambling on a trio of well-crafted, R-rating-worthy series—The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck—and basically becoming HBO-with-commercials in the process. USA has attracted buzz with the successes of Monk, The 4400 and The Dead Zone. TBS did it the unoriginal way by spending major cash for reruns of Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends, making the network a destination for viewers who never sampled it before. Other networks in recent years might have scored with a breakout hit—think Bravo with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or TLC with Trading Spaces—but they still hunger for a couple of more signature shows that will make viewers bookmark them.
This Rule of Three is not simply the mantra of niche networks. I suppose three is the limit of spinoffs of one show that can work. All three versions of CSI have succeeded, as have all three Law & Orders, but attempts to do one more have so far been stillborn.
Last year, ABC became a destination for viewers who hadn’t watched the network for years when it scored with Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. Famously, NBC became “Must See TV” on Thursdays, where the network has been slotting in trios of monster hits for more than two decades. From the days of The Cosby Show, Family Ties and L.A. Law through Friends, Will & Grace and ER, the application of the Rule of Three kept NBC dominant.
After falling to fourth place last year, this season NBC is breaking the bank for six new shows—rather, two groups of three—hoping to reverse the slide. Each show in group one—the sitcom My Name is Earl and the dramas E-Ring and Surface—is reportedly getting more marketing support than any show the network launched last year. Group two is comprised of reality series—the Martha Stewart Apprentice offshoot, the weight-loss competition Biggest Loser and the Amy Grant-hosted dream-fulfillment show Three Wishes.
I’m betting NBC scores with Earl and Amy Grant. But it still must secure one more success to get the three wishes it truly needs.
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