TV networks' new tactic: Make a long series short
Posted February 11, 2013
Broadcast TV is hoping good things come in smaller packages.
Over the next three weeks, ABC is launching two series, Zero Hour (Thursday, 8 ET/PT) and Red Widow (March 3, 9 ET/PT), that are scheduled to last 13 and eight episodes, respectively, without any plan this season to expand to the 22 episodes that is standard for a successful show.
Fox has scheduled 15 episodes of The Following, which is off to a solid start, based on star Kevin Bacon's wishes to do a smaller number of episodes, as is common in cable TV. And CBS this summer plans Under the Dome, a 13-episode miniseries based on a Stephen King novel that promises a satisfying ending but could return in success.
Broadcast networks are hardly abandoning the traditional financial structure of a new show order, which calls for an initial 13 episodes, followed, if ratings are high enough, by a back order of nine or more that helps amortize costs and builds toward the roughly 100 episodes needed for syndication. However, they are considering shorter orders, which are more common in a cable world less dependent on syndication, in cases where that is best for the material or the talent.
Shorter initial runs made sense for the two ABC dramas, both from a late-season scheduling standpoint and a creative one, says Channing Dungey, ABC's senior vice president of drama development. ABC is committed to serialized dramas, which tend not to repeat as well, and that means more series are needed to fill a full-season schedule.
The new ABC dramas plan to solve their initial mysteries in the first season, which could appeal to time-strapped viewers who want to know they will get answers quickly before committing to a program.
Zero Hour, which follows a reporter (Anthony Edwards) trying to get to the bottom of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery as he pursues his kidnapped wife, could come back with an annual, self-contained story along the lines of 24. Red Widow tells the story of a stay-at-home mom trying to protect her three children as she is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld after her husband's murder.
"With Zero Hour and Red Widow, in each case the narrative is going to wrap up within the course of this first handful of episodes. The stories ... we felt fit very neatly into a shorter order," Dungey says. "That doesn't mean that the following season we couldn't decide to come up with a story that has a longer narrative and arc."
Edwards, a veteran of ER's longer seasons, says he would prefer the smaller episode order if Zero Hour moves forward, and executive producer Zack Estrin says a shorter season allows the action to move at a faster pace.
ABC had mixed results last season with its shorter-order dramas. The River, a horror tale that resolved its initial mystery over eight episodes, did not survive for a second season, but Scandal, which opened with seven, is now on a full-season schedule and is one of TV's most-buzzed-about shows. One of ABC's 12 drama pilots, Reckless, is designed for a 13-episode season, which could attract bigger-name actors who might not want to commit to a potential 22 episodes.
For Scandal, seven episodes "felt like the exact right amount of time to draw viewers into the world, introduce the characters and then give a satisfying conclusion at the end of the season. And now this season, it's running the full 22," Dungey says.
In a rapidly changing media age, broadcast networks should consider different ways of programming, including shorter orders, but their basic financial model isn't likely to change, says David Scardino, entertainment specialist at advertising firm RPA. Self-contained, season-long stories, which have worked for cable shows such as Justified, could get more broadcast network attention, he says.
"If short orders keep the creative people happier, I would be looking at that," he says. But "from an economic standpoint, it just makes sense that the more episodes over which you can amortize the production costs, the cheaper per episode that show becomes."
If any of these shorter-run shows are popular, it's likely to lead to a longer life. That's the nature of television, as King said in a video presentation to TV critics in January. "It's very exciting to see the idea of taking the book and possibly expanding it, because that's what TV is for. TV is an expansive medium."
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