WITH CABLE, DIGITAL AND game options growing like bacteria, how do you get viewers to sit down and watch network prime time? By grabbing them around the neck and refusing to let go, according to broadcast programmers. The success of serialized thrillers 24, Prison Break and Lost—as well as the serial elimination of contestants in reality shows and the rebirth of serial drama with Desperate Housewives—has led to the dominant theme of the coming fall season: Don't you dare miss an episode!
ABC is banking most heavily on this concept, with four serialized thrillers on tap for fall or midseason—two with Lost-like mysterioso overlays. Heck, ABC even has two serialized comedies, Let's Rob…, a season-long comic caper featuring the Rolling Stone with the big lips, and Big Day, a whole season's worth of a single wedding (and you thought Jack Bauer had it rough).
But each of the other networks will be playing this card, too. Four shows feature season-long searches for missing people: ABC's Traveler, NBC's Kidnapped, Fox's Vanished and CW's Runaway. (These chases are so breathless that no one has time for more than a one-word title.) Even CBS, which has prospered with episodic crime dramas, is taking a flier on the form with serialized post-nuclear drama Jericho.
Creating the adrenaline rush of a crackerjack serialized thriller is a high risk/high reward proposition. "It's a challenge to get enough viewers to commit to so many prime-time serial dramas," says John Rash, senior vp/director of broadcast negotiation for Campbell Mithun. "But when they work, you get an incredible loyalty factor, and part of the viewer reward is the work and involvement they require."
The flipside to that loyalty? "You're asking a lot of viewers," says a network programmer. "If a person can only commit to two or three serials, how many can the schedule support?" There's also scheduling issues: Do you break up the season in blocks of six or eight, or 22 in a row for half a season, à la 24? Are they repeatable? Adds the exec, "If some of these don't open [and viewers feel they can't catch up], you could be in real trouble real fast."
Another question about season-long chases: What do you do for an encore? 24 has successfully answered that with "more of the same," but Stacey Lynn Koerner, president of Interpublic's new Consumer Experience Practice, notes, "A lot of these concepts didn't seem to cover multiyear arcs. We may be entering a time when you have single-season shows." Koerner, whose unit studies fan sites and communities, sees risk in the often-incomprehensible mythology surrounding thrillers like Lost and Alias: "We've seen a growing irritation among fans with formats that don't reward the viewer with at least a little resolution."
Steve Sternberg, executive vp/director of audience analysis at Magna Global, is wary of lumping all serialized thrillers together. "I don't know that they all appeal to the same audience," he says, and besides, "People don't watch genres. They're not looking for a type of show; they're looking for shows that are interesting and different."
If it's different you want, there's still hope. The nets have largely backed off from the crime dramas that threatened to overrun the schedule, with an array of new shows from courtroom to high-school football to inside TV. There are even a few fresh examples of that most endangered of species, the sitcom. Let's take a look at the big board.
ABC is in a strong position as the only network to show ratings growth this season, up 8 percent in the adults 18-49 demo, thanks to the hit triumvirate of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy (Grey's is the hottest show on TV after American Idol) plus reality hits Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Dancing With the Stars. With a solid base and promising development, ABC put a jaw-dropping 13 of its 22 hours and six of seven nights in flux.
Aggressive, or crazy? "They are in such a favorable ratings position that they rightly reason the biggest risk is taking no risk at all," argues Campbell Mithun's Rash. "If they can get one or two shows with the commercial and cultural resonance of Grey's, it will be a significantly successful season."
While several ABC dramas looked striking and edgy, several analysts saw the new schedule as too risky. "They're changing an awful lot of time periods," says Jordan Breslow, Mediacom's manager, national broadcast research. "It's way too many programs and much too aggressive." A rival calls it a "spaghetti schedule": Throw it against the wall and see what sticks. And one top buying strategist predicts that ABC "is heading for a fall."
Isn't it interesting, adds Magna Global's Sternberg, that ABC's ratings rose without returning a single successful show from last season? (Dancing launched in summer and no one calls midseason's What About Brian a winner.) And it's been noted that Desperate Housewives, still prime time's top scripted show, is down by 12 percent after a mixed season creatively.
Perhaps the most striking of ABC's 12—count 'em, 12— new series is The Nine, a serialized drama about a group of people who were hostages in a bank robbery, with both flashbacks and reverberations à la Lost. The Nine leads out from Lost on Wednesday at 10. There was also support for two midseason entries—Traveler, which mixes The Fugitive with Enemy of the State, and Day Break, a cross of The Fugitive and (we kid you not) Groundhog Day.
ABC execs are high on Six Degrees, from Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams, which follows the mysteriously interconnected lives of six strangers in a Crash/Short Cuts sort of way. (Guest shot by Kevin Bacon still pending.) And if no one watching the clips had the foggiest idea of what it's all about, an ABC exec apologetically explains that "J.J. cut the trailer."
Analysts were sanguine about prospects for ABC's big move of Grey's Anatomy to Thursday at 9, opposite CBS' CSI. One agency exec figures that "Grey's could lose five share points and ABC will still make more money" on movie-mad Thursday. CBS-ers expect both shows to prosper, each losing maybe 10 percent of its rating while increasing network viewing in the time period. "Grey's will bring in the young audience and make CSI older," predicts Interpublic's Koerner. "And CSI being episodic is an advantage for [can't-miss] Grey's."
Shari Anne Brill, vp, director of programming with Carat, figures Grey's will take the time period in adults, but says CBS will still win the night. "CBS has Survivor to support CSI, while ABC's first hour [comedies Big Day and Notes From the Underbelly] is one of their weakest. A comedy about fertility? Men will run away screaming." If ABC really wanted to build the night, adds Sternberg, why not leave Dancing to lead off?
Launching two new dramedies on Friday, Betty the Ugly and Men in Trees, is a move competitors see as especially prone to collapse. Breslow agrees: "Betty is a disaster and Anne Heche [of Men in Trees] isn't going to capture an audience versus four established options. They don't have a leg to stand on." Counters an ABC exec, "Both shows are charming, and we know women are available on Friday. It's our 25-54 night." In fact, analysts and competitors were struck by the female-centricity of ABC's schedule (Wednesday and Saturday excepted). But prime time skews female, notes Rash, "so it may pay off."
Analysts thought Monday weak, with ho-hum reality skeins Wife Swap and The Bachelor and the mystifying return of underperformer What About Brian. Observers assume Brian is yet another sop to J.J. Abrams. ABC-ers swear up and down that's not the case, citing its young female demos and a creative uptick. But they give the game away by trotting out Internet buzz as a reason to keep the show. Versus last year's Monday Night Football, expect the night to be down big time.
On the plus side, Tuesday's Let's Rob… was described as charming, though lead-out Help Me Help You, with Ted Danson, was not. An insider points out that "no one's watching us from 8 to 10 anyway, so Dancing With the Stars gets us going." Following Desperate Housewives on Sunday at 10 is Brothers & Sisters, a warm, multicharacter drama starring Calista Flockhart. "It's the right flow," says Koerner. Adds Rash, "It isn't Grey's, but it doesn't have to be." One of the net's best moves was replacing barely seen repeats with college football on Saturday. The NCAA has promised marquee match-ups, and ABC will likely have some Nascar races for this slot in the spring.
CBS has been a model of reliability in recent years, refreshing its schedule this season with successful new shows like Criminal Minds and The Unit. The net is down by two-tenths of a rating point in adults 18-49 and now runs third in that demo due to double-digit losses in Survivor, Two and a Half Men and two of its three CSIs. But it still leads handily in 25-54. That's why CBS felt confident enough to add just four new series, stop feeding its addiction to crime dramas, dip a toe in the serial game and make an aggressive move with a top-15 show. "They did very well," says Koerner. "All four of their new shows could fail and they'd still be number one in homes. They have the least risk going into the new season."
On its Monday stronghold (CBS caught a break when ABC chose not to move Grey's Anatomy here) the net at 8:30 adds The Class, a twentysomething comedy from Friends co-creator David Crane. It's paired with How I Met Your Mother at 8 to create a younger, un-CBS-like hour. "That's exactly what we were going for," says an exec.
Tuesday, now solid from 8 to 10, ends with Smith, a heist show starring Ray Liotta. It will air in three- or four-episode arcs, so viewers can come in throughout the season. Heist shows are hard to do, but analysts like Smith's chances. "CBS has effectively counterprogrammed Idol with more of a male action night, and this show may play well with that," says Rash. Koerner says the show "is the only one on CBS that nontraditional fans think looks compelling and interesting."
Leading off Wednesday is the net's biggest gamble: Jericho, a post-nuclear-war serial set in a small Kansas town. Some found the premise and pilot hard to take. "What's the demo, masochists 18-plus?" cracks one buyer. Analysts wonder whether the show can play at 8, whether it's mainstream enough and, ultimately, whether it belongs on CBS. Says Rash, "It's a heavy idea and it could be compelling, but many people turn to TV for escapism."
Yet some analysts are intrigued by the show and give CBS props for trying something different. "The show's really about survival and people coming together; it's more about the hope and rebuilding," says Koerner. CBS expects plenty of attention will help open the show, but some worry about scheduling and repeating the net's first big serial since Knot's Landing. If things don't work out, CBS would like to bring comedy back to Wednesday and has King of Queens in its pocket.
The net feels confident breaking up Thursday, where it dominates, because it believes in James Woods-starrer Shark. While rivals wonder whether viewers really want to invite Woods into their living rooms every week, the actor is certainly compelling, and Koerner adds that co-star Jeri Ryan brings a male fan base. Analysts figure this to be the season's top-rated rookie and think it might even take the time period in 18-49 against a weakened ER and wild card Six Degrees.
Moving Without a Trace from Thursday to Sunday at 10 kills three birds at once. It improves and steadies a time slot previously held by the hard-to-sell movie, opens up a protected spot to launch Shark after CSI, and puts pressure on a weakened slot on ABC's best night. Look for Trace to clean up, especially after football ends on NBC. And the underrated Cold Case at 9 makes for a seamless two-hour block.
As for the logic behind Sunday 7 to 9, CBS cheerfully admits there is none. "We're schizophrenic there," says an insider, "putting our youngest show [The Amazing Race] after our oldest show [60 Minutes]." Race was the "odd piece out," says another, but recruits its own audience, and the night should improve and pull a higher CPM than the movie.
The positive thing about NBC's new schedule—which it shook up dramatically late last week—is that most of its shows looked decent and nothing had the unmistakable stench of failure like Inconceivable or LAX. Analysts look forward to Aaron Sorkin's TV-biz dramedy Studio 60, Tina Fey's similarly themed comedy 30 Rock, heartwarming football drama Friday Night Lights, taut serial thriller Kidnapped and even the aging boomer comedy 20 Good Years. And NBC's new Sunday-night football package will provide a sorely needed promotional platform. "I had a good feeling about NBC's shows," says Breslow.
So much for the good news. NBC will need lots of help from its freshman class to rise from fourth place, with its 18-49 ratings down another 11 percent this season, the biggest loss of any broadcaster. Aside from Deal or No Deal and The Biggest Loser, most of its top shows are off by 20 percent or more, including ER, Medium and Las Vegas, while The Apprentice tumbled some 40 percent.
And now the really bad news: NBC's finely wrought plans came crashing down when ABC moved Grey's to Thursday at 9. NBC looked to the Sorkin show as the possible successor to ER, but facing Grey's and CSI would have strangled the show in its crib. So NBC shipped it off to Mondays at 10, where it "only" faces CSI Miami.
Even before NBC hit the panic button, analysts were guardedly optimistic about Studio 60, citing the strong Matthew Perry/Bradley Whitford-led cast and the Sorkin pedigree. But Breslow "was unimpressed by the clips," and rivals are caustic. Says one, "It has all the self-importance of The West Wing in a setting that doesn't justify it." Even NBC-ers are soft-selling, cautioning that "shows about TV are narrow." Translation: Don't get your hopes up.
Earlier on Mondays, analysts are still scratching their heads over Heroes at 9. Ordinary people develop super powers and, yep, save the world. Sounds X-Men-ish, but an insider advises, "Think Lost." Most analysts don't give it much chance and think it could work better as a movie, but Koerner notes, "The story is a very potent one for young folks. A community can form around this show. If it takes, it'll bring a very different audience to NBC. But this may not be the right network for it." On CW after Smallville maybe?
Friday Night Lights, leading off Tuesday, could do some business if it's more about the teens and parents and not so much about football, say analysts, though it can be promoted in NFL games. "But it could go the way of [underachiever] American Dreams," one analyst warns. NBC killed any potential leadout flow of Kidnapped at 9 by instead double-stacking Law & Orders (CI and SVU) from 9 to 11 with its shuffle last week.
In its new Wednesday 10 o'clock berth, Kidnapped stands a better chance against CSI: NY and ABC's untested The Nine, but there are two downsides. One, the original Law & Order, which already is fragile, may not travel well to an admittedly easier Friday night. And two, Kidnapped may simply be a serial thriller too many, and "it's a scary concept for people," Koerner cautions.
Buyers were really perplexed by the original flow of NBC's Wednesday schedule, but the new lineup seems no better. Any circulation The Biggest Loser—a top-30 show in the demo—would have brought to the night is largely squandered at 9, while 20 Good Years, with John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor as thrill-seeking, middle-aged-plus friends, is left to sink at 8. "It's not about demos or focus groups—it's just funny," offers one buyer, while Koerner calls it "The Golden Girls for guys." But let's face it: This is the kind of tired, old sitcom CBS would have been crucified for. As for 30 Rock at 8:30, Breslow reports, "We all loved it, but it's completely incompatible with the old-guy comedy. It could play better on Thursday."
Skipping ahead to Friday, Law & Order will help at 10. "Friday will work for them; it holds up well against CBS," says Breslow.
On Thursday, which is key to NBC's future, returning comedies My Name is Earl and The Office are a step in the right direction—but not a huge step. NBC is also protecting ER, still its top show, by throwing Deal or No Deal to the wolves. Who knows? Maybe it's brilliant counterprogramming.
Along with CBS, Fox's schedule is considered the most solid, led by the amazing American Idol—the only real hit on television, per Sternberg. The net won the 18-49 race for the second year running and gained a tick if the Super Bowl is excluded (it's down a tick for all programs). Fox proved it's no mere Idol threat, with double-digit gains for 24 (name another fifth-year show to do that), Family Guy and Nanny 911, while House blossomed into a top- 10 hit. Meanwhile, the net improved time periods with freshmen Prison Break, Bones, The War at Home and American Dad. Oh yeah, and it had the top-rated new show of the year in Unan1mous—a meaningless distinction, as this Idol satellite ain't coming back.
By now, Fox viewers are acclimated to a half-season strategy that brings back Idol and 24 in January, while shuffling the prime-time deck a bit. For the fall, analysts believe the net probably helped itself, with a schedule that feels relatively stable despite changes on six nights. Monday leads with Prison Break, whose loyal audience will follow as it morphs into another Fugitive. Following at 9 is Vanished, a serial thriller "that makes absolute sense for the time slot," says Brill. Compared to last fall's Arrested Development and Kitchen Confidential, chalk this up as a plus night.
Leading on Tuesday is Standoff, a drama about married hostage negotiators without a single hint of Moonlighting breeziness in the clips. Breslow is unconvinced: "It may look good as a stand-alone, but can it work as a series?" Fox can use an episodic series like this on its serial-packed schedule, notes Rash, but male viewers may gravitate toward NCIS. And analysts were impressed by Wednesday's Justice at 9, with the first-rate Victor Garber as a high-priced, high-tech defense attorney for rich scumbags. But Rash warns about the "challenge of getting viewers to identify with and rally around a celebrity defense attorney when these types are vilified nightly on cable news."
On Thursday, Fox joins prime time's only comedy battle with what is widely hailed as the funniest new show of the year: 'Til Death, with Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher as a cynical married couple living next door to newlyweds. "The comic beats were very good," says Brill. Analysts were less enthralled with 8:30 entry Happy Hour—following young singles yukking it up in Chicago—but it is tonally similar enough to hold its lead-in, they figure. NBC's Earl and The Office will hang on to win, but Fox should be happy with a 9 share here; Brill adds that Fox's block "will trump ABC's comedies."
Fox ought to do better in the Friday-night death slot with female-oriented reality combo Nanny 911 and Trading Spouses than with last year's disappearing act by Malcolm in the Middle and Killer Instinct (yes, I looked it up). Saturday's stet, while Sunday is tweaked with American Dad sliding to 8:30 for a five-show animation block. And a bow, please, for The Simpsons, which barely lost a step in its 17th season while closing in on Gunsmoke's record.
And where is the Fox show that traditionally blows up on the launching pad? Votes go to The Winner, an unwatchable midseason sitcom with The Daily Show's Rob Corddry. But cognoscenti lean toward Spike Feresten's Saturday night talk show. By bombing at the upfront, Spike may have Schimmeled himself off the air.
UPN's old nickname—"the Used Parts Network"—surely applies here, and that's not a bad thing. CW launches with the best bits of its predecessor networks—plus a few more bits—and, thus, will boldly go where no weblet has…oh wait, they canceled Star Trek last year.
Still, it's easy to see why insiders consider this a slam-dunk. "If every show does as well as last year," says David Poltrack, exec vp/chief research officer for CW half-parent CBS, "with the stronger stations and promotion, this network is far ahead financially because it has all the top-billing shows." Dawn Ostroff, the net's president of entertainment, believes CW has a decent chance to transcend weblet status.
While Brill says the net's scheduling is "nearly perfect," questions remain. Monday, surprisingly, leads off with 7th Heaven; producing studio Paramount made the cast and creators an offer they couldn't refuse. Execs made the effort because they think the veteran family drama fits nicely with the 9 p.m. Runaway, a serial about a family on the lam. But isn't this more a thriller than a family drama? "The shows don't work well together," declares Breslow.
Tuesday brings the pairing of Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, a combo so irresistible that the net brought back the latter despite ratings that verged on a rounding error. Veronica was always a WB show on the wrong network, say execs, and its creative strength and passionate fan base have earned it this shot.
A cynic might note that the CW drew roughly the same number of series from the Warner and Paramount studios—though Warner makes more full hours—and can imagine a scenario where the Warner guys said, "You want to bring back [Paramount's] Veronica? Then pick up our One Tree Hill." Network and studio execs are appalled anyone could think such thoughts. "We are totally about putting on the best shows," says Ostroff. So please explain: If Veronica was such an awkward fit that it fumbled a big lead-in from America's Top Model last year, why should One Tree Hill do any better on Wednesday next season?
Thursday's intact pairing of Smallville and Supernatural works fine, and Friday Night Smackdown! does its thing. As for Sunday's lineup of African-American comedies, Brill scores it a missed opportunity. "Everybody Hates Chris will languish at 7," she says, and using 9 o'clock for Top Model repeats is a waste. Better to drop the repeats to 7, she says, and put Chris at 8, "where it can give The Simpsons a run for its money. Then put Girlfiends and [promising spinoff] The Game from 9 to 10, since African-American women are less likely to watch Desperate Housewives and it's an alternative to Fox's male comedies."
It's impossible to analyze the fledgling MyNetworkTV by the standards of the "real" networks, since it was hatched for syndication, quacks like syndication and will likely be bought from syndication budgets. MyNetworkTV is trying to import the telenovela concept that is so successful around the world, with execs citing 70 shares in Bolivia and the Ukraine or some such. "You're talking about comparisons to less-developed media markets," notes Rash, "that don't have the range of choice we have."
Two hour-long, closed-end soaps will be stripped from 8 to 10 p.m. for 13-week cycles under the rubrics Desire and Secret Obsessions. They feature unknown lovelies and smoldering prettyboys, with past-sell-by-date stars like Bo Derek and Sean Young sprinkled on top. Budgets are said to run around $100,000 per episode. Many analysts are inclined to estimate the thing at a 2 share and forget it. But some see more to it. Says Jason Maltby, president/co-executive director of Mindshare Broadcast, "If one of these things taps into the bilingual Hispanic market, all bets are off." Adds TV veteran Stan Moger of SFM Entertainment, "The biggest cost for something like this is the scripts, and they've got a bunch that are proven to work, but just need translating. Buyers will be all over this."
With broadcasters pulling teeth to draw viewers once a week, how much can a five-a-week serial expect?
"I'd be happy if they watched twice a week, with hardcore viewers every night," says Jack Abernethy, the Fox TV Stations CEO shepherding the project. Will affiliated stations sit still for a 1 rating when they could just run movies? "I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't expecting a 3 or 4 household rating eventually," he replies. "My biggest problem is planning for success."
Eric Schmuckler is a contributing writer for Mediaweek.