The Business of Television
Networks Plot CoursePoststrike, Executives Seek Strategies To Woo TV Viewers: Premieres Year-Round? More Reruns? Definitely New Scripts
By Rebecca Dana, The Wall Street Journal,
February 15, 2008
Back in business after the writers' strike, executives at the broadcast networks are trying to address two urgent questions: how to win back viewers and advertisers this season, and how to keep them coming back next year.
Executives say they also are hoping to capitalize on the chaos of the strike by doing away with some of the arcane conventions of television production that have persisted, against reason, for decades. This includes the rhythms of the traditional TV-season structure, which many feel is outmoded in an age of hundreds of channel-surfing and time-shifting viewers. And it includes the expense of making pilots for dramas, which often cost three times the $3 million or so budget for an ordinary episode.
"The economics of this business have been broken for quite some time," says Jamie Erlicht, co-president of programming and production for Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Television. "In the poststrike environment, there's going to be a shift to new ways of piloting, new ways of ordering series."
So far, the gravest predictions about the effects the strike would have on the old model haven't transpired. Viewers didn't abandon the medium en masse and turn to the Internet and DVDs. They dutifully watched reality shows, but these shows didn't take over; reruns and other programming kept plugging along as well. But over the 100 days of the strike, ideas about the business shifted in subtle ways.
"At the end of the day, TV's still a hit-driven business. Who's to say that the old way was the only way of doing it? I like to think that we can collectively get together and figure out what a good show is, maybe based on something less than a fully polished full pilot," says Kelly Kahl, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling for CBS Corp.'s CBS network.
Executives say they plan to abandon the clustering of program premiere dates in the fall, instead spreading them year-round. The whole subject of reruns is being re-evaluated, in fact, as networks consider adding more same-week repeats into prime time as a way of competing with digital video recorders, as NBC has done successfully with "Heroes" and Time Warner Inc.'s HBO did with shows like "The Sopranos."
And they are hoping to maintain some of the cost-cutting benefits of the strike, such as ending costly studio deals through the use of force majeure clauses.
"We're a little bit leaner and more agile now," says Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, units of General Electric Co. "We would be foolish as an industry to go back to the way things were before. It would be a real shame if the vast majority of those deals got reinstated."
The first priority in getting new episodes of series on the air is leaning to the tried-and-true. That means many first-year shows, such as NBC's "Life," which picked up a small but enthusiastic audience when it premiered last autumn, will remain in hibernation until the fall. Then, with the fanfare of a new season's marketing campaign, the networks will try to win back forgetful viewers.
Executives are focusing their efforts on marquee dramas, including ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and CBS's "CSI" and NBC's "Law and Order" franchises. Quick-to-produce sitcoms, too, could be on the air by mid-March.
But compounding the pressure is that in a normal year, this would be the peak of development season, when pilots are commissioned and shot. Then they are rejected or picked up in May and aimed toward a standard September premiere. This schedule has been compressed as a result of the strike, and in some cases studios and networks are relying on rough drafts of scripts to order up pilots. In other cases, they are placing 13-episode orders of new shows without seeing a pilot at all -- in hopes of getting back on schedule by this summer.
Bradford Winters, who works on "The Philanthropist," a drama by "Homicide" writer Tom Fontana that earned a pilot-free 13-episode order from NBC last fall in anticipation of the then-looming strike, returned to his office this week only to do more sitting and waiting -- this time for a go-ahead from network bosses to restart work.
To go through May, the traditional end of the TV season, CBS plans to start showing in March and April new episodes of 14 scripted prime-time shows, all in various stages of production. The network expects to show nine new episodes each of the network's most dependable sitcoms, including "How I Met Your Mother" and "Two and a Half Men," which will debut together on March 17. Producers also anticipate showing six to eight unshown episodes of the "CSI" franchise shows, which will appear in late March and early April. By the middle of April, CBS is hoping to have a complete schedule of new episodes of recognizable shows back on TV.
NBC is planning to launch new episodes of many of its scripted series in April. The network will air eight episodes of the sitcom "My Name is Earl," six of "The Office" and five of "30 Rock." For dramas, the network expects to show five new episodes each of "Law and Order" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and six of "ER."
Walt Disney Co.'s ABC expects to air four to six new episodes each of its slate of hit dramas, including "Desperate Housewives," "Brothers and Sisters," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Ugly Betty" by the end of May. There are nine episodes yet to air of the midseason drama "Eli Stone."
Because Fox has been showing the juggernaut "American Idol" during the strike, the network has a somewhat lessened sense of urgency. Still, the network is roughly in line with the others when it comes to stores of new scripted programs, with expectations of airing four to six episodes of "Bones" this spring, as well as upwards of six episodes each of new shows "Unhitched," "Canterbury's Law" and "The Return of Jezebel James." The network has delayed the premiere of the new season of terror thriller "24" until January.
But one long tradition, the May "upfronts" when shows are unveiled for advertisers at lavish presentations, will go on as planned. Jeff Zucker, president and chief executive of NBC Universal, recently floated plans to dial down the pricey ritual, but no other network has followed suit. CBS yesterday announced plans to go ahead with a traditional upfront presentation. News Corp.'s Fox has already said it intends to host its usual event, although Peter Liguori, Fox network's president, says he expects it to be a more flexible affair. "I see no reason next year to say, 'We need to get all of our pilots, all of our decisions made for the May upfront,' " he says.
ABC hasn't made an announcement, but many in the business believe it will proceed as planned as well. Not even NBC is planning a radical departure.
"I'm sure there will still be some form of a party," Mr. Graboff says. In recent years, NBC has used Radio City Music Hall for the occasion.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1203...b_marketplaceN