Typing Faster

February 1, 2010

Are Serialized Dramas Going the Way of the Dodo?

Filed under: Future of TV, Kvetch, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 12:14 pm

Seems like this discussion rolls around every few months, and I’m sure a lot of us are getting pretty tired of talking about it, but I came across some interesting informational tid bits over the past few days that I wanted to share.

I think we can all agree that things aren’t looking that rosy for serialized shows on broadcast networks. While people are salivating at the return of Lost, the fact of the matter is that serialized shows have been seriously underperforming. Shows like 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives have all seen their ratings decline over the past few years, while one time hits like Heroes have literally fallen off a cliff.

You might be tempted to say “So what?” The audience for broadcast television has declined across the board, why should we be especially concerned for serialized shows?

Well, like everything else, it comes down to a matter of economics. Quoting an article from Broadcasting & Cable:

As the economics of television have become increasingly challenging amid viewer fragmentation, back-end potential has become even more critical. Unlike crime procedurals, which seem to run endlessly on ad-supported cable and in syndication, serials have always been a much tougher sell in the syndication market.

ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy may have sold to Lifetime for $1.2 million per episode, but Lost and Heroes both went for well under $500,000 per episode. By contrast, last year The Mentalist and freshman procedural NCIS: Los Angeles both sold for more than $2 million an episode, the latter after just a handful of airings on CBS. The top-rated off-network weekly series are crime procedurals—CSI: NY, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, CSI: Miami, Bones and House.

$2M an episode to less than $500K. That’s a monster drop. Factor in the increasingly vertically integrated production industry in the states and is it any wonder that broadcasters (and their various production studio subsidiaries) are getting gun shy about serialized shows?

“I think we’re seeing the decline of these shows,” says Chuck Larsen, president of distribution consulting firm October Moon Television, of serialized dramas. “The networks were kind of slow to realize that serialized shows just don’t repeat well.” But they appear to realize it now, including with their current series.

Fox took pains to market J.J. Abrams’ Fringe as a series that didn’t require a Lost-sized commitment. And while Grey’s still turns on the personal entanglements of its main characters, recent seasons have put more emphasis on the jaw-dropping medical case of the week.

And that’s the way things have been trending for a while now, even when you look at the networks development slates.

ABC, the most serial-heavy network, has only a handful of overtly serialized dramas in development, including the soap Matadors and Generation Y, an adaptation of a Scandinavian series that alternates between the characters’ present-day lives and their senior year in high school a decade earlier. And it’s telling that the drama that Abrams has in development at NBC is much more in the procedural mold.

NBC, which is attempting to turn around a years-long ratings slide, has a total of 18 pilots in development, including David E. Kelley’s legal drama Kindreds and remakes of Prime Suspect and The Rockford Files.

Not a lot of serialized shows on those lists, so does that mean that the genre is dead?

TV By The Numbers doesn’t think so, for a couple of reasons.

The bigger question for me is whether cable will stand by the heavily serialized drama. My guess at least for now is yes. Sons of Anarchy is FX’s highest-rated show this season, and one of the highest-rated shows on cable. It’s about as heavily serialized as you can get. Same for Showtime’s Dexter, which in its fourth season saw record ratings. And of course, the same holds for HBO’s True Blood. Indeed, HBO and Showtime have a lot of heavily serialized dramas.

Still, even on cable, procedural drama are among the biggest hits (see Burn Notice and The Closer). I don’t expect that to change, but I also don’t expect the short-term flight to procedurals that may happen on broadcast.

Can’t argue with that. Serialized dramas have been doing incredibly well for cablers over the past few years, hard to see that changing. Even more interesting, at least for the long term, is whether the disappearance of serialized dramas on networks like CBS and FOX will lead other, struggling networks (ie. NBC) to start pursuing a counter programming strategy. In other words, is it all just cyclical?

Despite the tone of the B&C article, it will be interesting next year to look at the number of one hour heavily serialized dramas versus this season. I’m not sure it will change much. CBS doesn’t have any highly serialized dramas. Outside of 24, which may or may not be back next season — neither does FOX. NBC has Heroes, but that’s hardly a success at this point, and Friday Night Lights, which remains due to the deal with DirectTV.

ABC on the other hand still counts heavily serialized dramas among its biggest hits. Sure, Lost won’t be coming back, but even if they’re down in the ratings, especially with the women’s demographics they target, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are still ABC’s biggest hits. Along with Private Practice and Brothers & Sisters, you can count on them being back next year.

Also, I wonder if at some point FOX, and ABC don’t just cede the procedural space to CBS to a certain extent and offer up serialized dramas as counter-programming. As for NBC there are a couple of ways to look at it. Conventional wisdom suggests that NBC will be fearful of taking the perceived risk associated with heavily serialized dramas.

On the other hand, some might argue, “What does NBC have to lose?” Plus, NBC’s storied history is deeply rooted in serialized dramas going back to Hill Street Blues. Interestingly, along with St. Elsewhere, LA Law and ER, NBC had cornered the market on shows that walked the line of being almost half procedural and half serialized. The serialized story lines on those shows were much bigger arcs than the likes of Burn Notice or House yet they had case of the week aspects to them in a way that shows like Lost, Dexter and Sons of Anarchy do not.

For a long time, it was a very sweet spot for NBC.

Indeed it was. That was the golden era of NBC, the time of “Must See TV,” and they did it with shows that definitely had a (more) heavily serialized element. None were as heavily serialized as something like The Wire, but they definitely weren’t Law & Order.

That’s not all the good news for fans of serialization either, turns out the economic pictures isn’t as bad as a lot folks thought.

Turns out that serialized shows sell pretty darn well on DVD.

In 2009 the top TV Show DVDs (based on revenue):

  1. True Blood S1 ($61 million)
  2. The Office S5 ($30 million)
  3. Lost S5 ($29 million)* (was only available for ~3 weeks during 2009)
  4. Heroes S3 ($25 million)
  5. Grey’s Anatomy S5 ($23 million)
  6. 24 S7 ($22 million)
  7. Family Guy S7 ($19 million)
  8. Dexter S3 ($17 million)
  9. Smallville S8 ($16 million)
  10. Southpark S12 ($15 million)

Not the same as syndication fees obviously, but better than a kick in the teeth!

If I had to guess I’d say that serialized dramas will continue to be in bad odor at the networks for the next few years, but that they’ll continue to do very well for cable companies. Worth keeping in mind next time you’re heading for a broadcaster to pitch your latest show.

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