For years, Jeff Zucker was everyone’s favorite piñata, and no one enjoyed smacking the former NBC Universal chairman around quite like CBS boss Les Moonves. The former wunderkind got his bell rung whenever he’d announce that the broadcast model was irreparably broken, a compulsion that escalated Moonves’ Schadenfreude to dizzying heights.
As late as this spring, Moonves took a jab at his former rival’s faith. “When one of our competitors at another one of the major networks kept talking about ‘the model’s broken,’ I said, ‘No, no, no. . . . There’s a difference between a failed programming executive and the model being broken,’” Moonves said in April.
Funny thing is, Zucker may turn out to be right after all. Escalating production costs and a steady decline in ratings have broadcasters doing a radical rethink of how they program prime time; as such, a number of new series will be chopped down from the standard 22-episode order to a more manageable baker’s dozen.
Lifted from cable’s tried-and-true 13-episode model, the streamlined format will be applied to some of the most hotly anticipated new series of the 2011-12 season. That includes what is easily the most expensive series on the grid—the 20th Century Fox TV/DreamWorks/Chernin Entertainment dino drama Terra Nova (the two-hour premiere episode cost a staggering $16 million), which will wrap its first season on Fox in December.
While executive producer Peter Chernin has said that they would be able to generate 22 episodes of Terra Nova, Fox already appears to have its midseason slate locked up. Also falling below the 22-episode gnat line is Bones spin-off The Finder, which bows in early 2012, and Touch, a one-hour Keifer Sutherland drama written by Heroes creator Tim Kring. Fox also put in a truncated order for the J.J. Abrams thriller Alcatraz, carving out time for 12 episodes.
Over at NBC, former Showtime entertainment president Bob Greenblatt is rolling lucky 13s with a pair of midseason efforts. The well-received musical Smash this winter will strut its stuff alongside the surprise new hit The Voice, while the supernatural drama Awake will materialize at around the same time.
Another former cable hand is experimenting with shorter runs. The newly minted entertainment president of ABC, former ABC Family president Paul Lee, has committed to 10 episodes each of the loopy nighttime soap GCB (formerly known as Good Christian Bitches) and the Ashley Judd vehicle, Missing.
ABC’s earlier experiments with short orders have produced unspectacular results. In 2003, Susan Lyne signed off for 13 episodes of the criminally underwatched Carla Gugino drama Karen Sisco; ultimately, only 10 installments aired. The following spring, the anthology series from Stephen King, Kingdom Hospital, also 13 episodes, flopped mightily. ABC burned off the final four installments in midsummer.