Dateline NBC. 20/20. 60 Minutes.Lately, it
seems these newsmagazines are on all of the time. ABC, NBC and CBS -- desperate to both
save money and air viable programming -- have taken a page from cable's playbook by
steadily adding non-fiction informational shows.
That cost-cutting strategy now stands in stark contrast to
the cable world, where more basic-cable networks are acting like broadcasters,
aggressively adding scripted fictional series to their lineups.
"It's the natural evolution of things," said
Turner Network Television's executive vice-president of originals, Bob DeBitetto.
Cable is turning to scripted narrative series because
theatrical and made-for-TV movies, miniseries and sports specials do not create
appointment-viewing habits. "HBO [Home Box Office] has been inordinately successful
with series," DeBitetto said. "It's obvious, but we need appointment television
and a signature series will create that."
Added Eileen Katz, executive vice president for programming
at Comedy Central: "The world we live in today, the stakes are so much higher."
While Katz said she simply looks for the best ideas, and
not specifically for scripted shows, Comedy Central is clearly focusing on these series.
Other networks are as well. TNT last month unveiled its
first-ever original series development slate. Earlier this month, Fox Family Channel
formed a new department dedicated to the creation and development of primetime scripted
series, appointing two executives to run it. Fox Family already has a one-hour scripted
series, Cliffhangers, slated to premiere in January.
A wide variety of cable networks are now putting scripted
series on their schedules, including USA Network, Lifetime Television, MTV: Music
Television, VH1, American Movie Classics, Sci Fi Channel and even Animal Planet.
"When you get increased viewership and revenue, you
have money to do bigger shows," said Ray Solley, an agent at the William Morris
Agency who specializes in developing cable-programming deals. "The next logical step
is scripted [shows]. It's a big leap, but it puts you more on par with broadcast."
As this is cable, many of these shows shatter the
traditional formulas for scripted series.
"You do expect to see something different on
cable," Solley said.
Marc Juris, AMC's senior vice president of programming,
production and packaging, said, "I never say never, but a sitcom does feel a little
too much like conventional television for us."
Added Comedy's Katz: "The main criteria is, 'What
makes this show distinctive -- the format, the look, the talent.' "
IT'S ONLY MAKEUP
For instance, Jerri, as played by Amy Sedaris on Comedy
Central's after-school special parody Strangers With Candy,would never star
on broadcast television -- in part because of her odd looks and because her show is as
depraved and twisted as Touched by an Angel is predictable and wholesome.
Two other Comedy offerings -- Frank Goes to the Orient and
Upright Citizens Brigade,a sketch show in which skits are often woven
together -- are far more innovative and surreal than traditional half-hours.
MTV's Undressed stars typically beautiful television
folks and focuses on love and sex among the 18-to-34 crowd. But this is no Melrose
Place. The show's format is totally unique.
Undressed features three distinct stories in each
episode, and each story arc has a limited lifespan of two to five episodes. As a result,
the series featured 103 speaking roles, 23 story lines and nine sets in its first season.
Sitcoms, like Lifetime's Oh Baby, can't afford to be
unusual. Oh Baby is about a single woman who is artificially inseminated. Its main
character occasionally freezes the action with a remote control to talk directly to the
Meanwhile, Sci Fi's Farscape is "the most
ambitious dramatic series ever done for basic cable," boasts Bonnie Hammer, Sci Fi's
vice president of programming. "It's more like a feature film."
The show, heavy on special effects and creatures created by
The Jim Henson Company, was produced by Hallmark Entertainment, which has won acclaim and
ratings for broadcast network productions such as Lonesome Dove and Gulliver's
TNT has 10 hour-long dramatic series on its development
plate. TNT has ordered its first pilot for Bull from sister company Warner Bros.
Television. Bull is about six ambitious investment bankers on Wall Street that
break away from an established firm to start their own company.
Some of the other dramatic series on TNT's slate are: South
Camelot, a fantasy-adventure that sets a 20th-century Arthur in South Miami
Beach, Fla.; The Warden, about the first female warden in an all-male maximum
security prison; Breaking News, set in the high-pressure environment of a 24-hour
news channel; and The Whole Truth, about a district attorney and his team.
Even USA, which has long done scripted series, is moving
beyond such standard fare as Silk Stalkings.
"We'll take a few more chances now," said David
Eick, senior vice president of original series development for USA Networks. With GvsE --
about a fictional agency manned by characters that have come back from the dead that
battles evil -- Eick said, "we've gotten a little bit smarter and more ironic, with a
sense of humor."
USA is also developing single camera, high-concept physical
comedies à la I Love Lucy. For example, it has ordered a pilot for the comedy
series Brown Parcels of Land.
This type of show is "something that is missing from
other lineups," Eick said.
The networks also take advantage of their scheduling
flexibility to bring viewers something different. Undressed ran daily for six weeks
and will do that again in its
"That makes it an event, which makes it easier to
market," MTV executive vice-president of programming Brian Graden said.
Hammer said Sci Fi's 20-hour collaboration with Steven
Spielberg, Taken, will not be treated as a regular series, but "will take over
the network for two weeks. With his name attached we can market it as a major event."
The network can use Spielberg to drive sampling from
viewers afraid of the science-fiction niche and use Taken as a promotional platform
for Sci Fi's other series. (The maxi-miniseries is scheduled for summer 2000.)
Juris said that AMC's The Lot, a four-episode
limited series about life at a movie studio in the 1930s, "lent itself to a limited
series in terms of storytelling but it is in no way limited to a limited series."
If renewed, Juris said, The Lot could come back as a
22-order series. "But while that might strategically sound better, it might be better
in terms of storytelling to do it in bursts of four episodes," he said. "We
don't have the same restraints and restrictions as network TV. We can do scheduling driven
DeBitetto said TNT's new series will likely launch next
year in the second or third quarter, "but the luxury we have is that we don't have a
'season,' so we don't have to put a show on until its ready."
With no strict niche, TNT and USA have it a bit easier than
other networks in choosing series. But TNT's DeBitetto said broader audiences present
their own challenge. "We have a bigger playing field to choose shows from, but we
direction than the narrowcasters," he said.
Jeff Gaspin, VH1's executive vice president of programming
and production, agreed that his life is simpler.
"It's very easy for us to eliminate proposals,"
he said. "We have to stay very targeted. On Random Play [the network's new
sketch comedy show], there's nothing there that said, 'That doesn't belong on a music
Bill Graff, director of programming for Animal Planet,
which is launching dramas such as Call of the Wild (based on Jack London's classic)
and sitcoms such as Dr. Dean, about a veterinarian, said, "We plan to keep the
animal content fairly constant."
AMC's The Lot had a definite 1930s film feel to it.
Juris said any future series on the network would also have a "cinematic feel."
Occasionally, however, networks view scripted narrative
programs as opportunities to break out of their niche.
For example, MTV's Graden called Live Through This,
a series about kids in an old rock band slated for the spring, a "no-brainer"
because of its musical connection.
But Graden said that with 17 music shows, "our core
foundation is strong. So we want to complement these shows, to address what our audience
is talking about that we're not." That's how Undressed, about love and sex but
not about music, was born.
No matter how much these shows boost a network's image,
executives still must figure out how to pay for them. "It's nice to play like you're
a big broadcaster, but you have to make sure your business model works," Gaspin said.
VH1 is just "dipping its toe in the water" and won't splurge on sitcoms and
One way cable networks can make such shows work is by
teaming production companies that know how to produce non-fiction or reality shows on a
cable budget with showrunners and writers from the broadcast world who are looking to
fulfill their creative vision.
"If you're coming into cable to get rich quick, you're
probably not well-advised," he said.
Michael Yudin, president of Telescene Entertainment, which
is producing Live Through This, said that while cable pays less, no one ever
thought cable would spend as much as it is. And the cable airings can be springboards to
But while the broadcast networks that lavish the big bucks
are complaining about a thin talent pool, the cable world is finding people willing to
take less for "projects of passion," said Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff, Lifetime's
senior vice president of programming and production. Her returning series are Oh Baby and
Any Day Now, which is about a black woman and a white woman who pick up their
friendship after 30 years.
"So many women are stifled in Hollywood," said
Tarnofsky-Ostroff, adding that creative talent also likes the fact that cable networks
develop very few shows.
"You have a better chance of getting picked up,"
she said, explaining that Lifetime developed four dramas and five comedies, shot four
pilots and added three to its schedule.
"Broadcast TV is not particularly a supportive
environment," DeBitetto said. "If we make a pilot and series, we are really in
bed with you in a big way. We assure the talent that everything is being done to ensure
the show's success in terms of marketing. And we
have to stick with these shows because often, we don't have
Ultimately, Graden said many writers "are locked up by
studios or paid an insane amount of money." Shows like The Lot or Undressed,
which require actors and writers for a limited time, can more easily attract talent
willing to make financial sacrifices or studios willing to lend out a writer. But Graden
said a better solution is "finding the next Trey and Matt," referring to South
Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "You give up something with novices in
terms of structure," he said, but often their unique vision makes it worthwhile.
Tarnofsky-Ostroff said budgets could also be kept down with
strategies like using fewer actors or sets on each show and strictly maintaining tight
schedules. But Graden said
many times the result is a show that looks cheap.
Telescene's Yudin has found one way to fund these series.
He produces action-adventure movies for DirecTV Inc., using international funding sources
to get $4 million budgets. The movies then run on TNT. If the movie is successful, DirecTV
then orders a series based it, which can then be syndicated on a cable network. Cable
networks could even buy the series rights without a first run on DirecTV.
Meanwhile, some networks are simply spending more. TNT will
spend around $1.1 million to $1.4 million per episode for dramas, because, DeBitetto said,
TNT viewers watch theatrical films and off-net dramas like ER and "expect good
Sci Fi, which is also seeking a lush look for its shows,
produced both Farscape and First Wave with international backing. Farscape
was shot in Australia and done in conjunction with Hallmark Entertainment and Australia's
But Hammer said that strategy, long a TV staple, is being
phased out in favor of producing shows in-house and maintaining more control over the
series and its aftermarket.
The aftermarket could be particularly important for cable
networks because these original series are meant not just to boost ratings but to brand
the network. "If you could see Undressed anywhere else, it would be bad for
MTV," Graden said.
But while Tarnofsky-Ostroff said that because of branding,
"ideally we would love to strip our own shows," she points out that "this
is a new frontier, so nobody knows what they'll be worth."
Some shows, of course, won't be worth anything. While
cable's careful development process means the networks will have a higher success rate,
failures are inevitable. "We had such high hopes for Maggie after the
pilot," Tarnofsky-Ostroff said of a sitcom that Lifetime did not renew this year.
"But creatively it never hit its stride -- it felt like a typical sitcom."
At AMC, Remember WENN was successful, but was
cancelled anyway -- it wasn't specific enough to the movies. Juris said AMC also does not
have the resources to do more than one scripted show at a time.
In fact, while some networks, like Comedy Central, are
talking about having as much as 10 hours of original series each week (not all scripted,
narrative series), most are looking for one or two nights worth of scripted series.
"It gets expensive," Graden said.
"We are not getting into this to turn TNT into
ABC," DeBitetto added, noting that for cable networks, quality is more important --
and prudent -- than quantity.
These limits can create a backlog for the talent.
"Right now our doors really aren't open," Tarnofsky-Ostroff said. "We're
evaluating what we have in development."
Still, there will be more opportunities for everyone down
the road. Juris said that in three years, every network will have joined the fray -- even
documentary-filled outlets such as The History Channel.
"It's the most efficient and effective way to brand
yourself way to cut through the clutter," he said.