Pricey Dramas Fall Short, But Nets Stay The Course

CBS’ cancellation of its crime series Smith last week didn’t surprise many in Hollywood, but it certainly set much of the TV production community on edge. After all, it isn’t the only big-budget drama to under-perform this fall. Among the others are NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Kidnapped and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; Fox’s Vanished; and ABC’s Six Degrees. Executives throughout the industry said if these shows fail to find an audience, the 2006-07 season may be one of the costliest in recent memory.

It wasn’t that long ago when the average price tag for a first-year drama hovered at a hefty $1.7 million per episode. Now, most total up to $3 million. And when they cost more, they really cost more. A representative for Disney’s Touchstone TV said its two-hour pilot for Lost set them back $12 million. Meanwhile, NBC confirmed that the pilots for Kidnapped and Studio 60 amounted to nearly $7 million each.

But despite these spiraling costs, the networks, by and large, are sticking with their faltering shows this fall. Reports surfaced last week that while NBC would not be ordering the back nine episodes of Kidnapped, it was committed to airing the series’ first 13. Fox’s Vanished, which had aired Mondays following Prison Break, will switch to Fridays at 8 p.m. as of Oct. 23, while Justice moves to Mondays.

One of the reasons networks may be standing by their shows longer this season is that in order to manage higher production costs, they’ve had to order fewer replacement series.

“I think the networks have been a little leaner in terms of the number of shows they’ve ordered,” said Barry Jossen, executive vp of production for Touchstone TV. “And that creates a need to stick with the shows they have until the shows they did order are ready to run.”

With so much programming being offered digitally this season, networks also may be holding back on cancellations with the hope that viewers find their series on other platforms. “People are watching shows off their DVRs, on the networks’ own Web sites, or they’re downloading them off iTunes,” said Brad Adgate, senior vp, director of research at Horizon Media. “So I think the networks may be waiting for viewers to catch up with a series before they yank them off the air.”

But with many of the fall’s new shows being told in a serialized format, catching up—even on digital platforms—can be confusing. “If you miss the pilot or first two episodes, you miss the whole thread of the story,” noted Steve Sternberg, executive vp of audience analysis at Magna Global. “And it’s tough to keep viewers at that point, let alone attract new ones.”

Indeed, one of the lessons that programmers already have learned this early in the season is that the marketplace for serialized dramas may be saturated. “There are only so many hours per night that any single viewer can commit to TV,” said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox TV. “And for many viewers who already have committed to 24, Prison Break, Lost or Desperate Housewives, there’s just a limited amount of room to commit to new shows the way you need to commit to these serialized dramas.”

Just as important is the notion that throwing money at the screen doesn’t guarantee viewers. “I think the season serves as a reminder that quantity does not equal quality,” said Marc Graboff, West Coast president, NBC Universal TV.

“No matter how many more action scenes, or explosions, or cast members you have, it doesn’t necessarily deliver you a hit, said Graboff. “It’s still all about the writing.”