With programming costs rising, ad revenues declining and continuing pressure to capture the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, cable networks are increasingly turning to original series for salvation. Original shows are seen as cornerstones of a network's efforts to generate buzz, build up a brand and generate ratings. And the value of original series programming as a tool to cut through the cluttered television landscape continues to grow, according to Jack Myers, editor of the New York-based Jack Myers Report.
Myers maintained that only original programming can distinguish a network and build a loyal audience. Successful originals, in turn, prompt the sampling of other shows, allow further promotion of a network schedule and ultimately build ratings.
"If you have the ability to develop appointment viewing, that is the Holy Grail of TV programming," Myers said. "But don't let anyone say that it's easy."
Indeed, for all the scripted comedy and drama series launched, few return for a second or third season. While networks like Home Box Office and Lifetime Television attract both viewers and critical acclaim with original series, others like Turner Network Television and USA Networks struggle to find a breakout vehicle.
It's an expensive bet to lose. Programming costs have risen an estimated 20 percent in the past three years. A scripted drama can rack up production costs of $500,000 to as high as $2 million per episode. Sitcoms can cost anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 per episode, while non-scripted shows can cost as little as $200,000.
Most programmers agree that one-hour dramas are particularly expensive and difficult to pull off because of their costs. "It's very tough," said Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment at FX. "The economics of original series are tricky and how you define a series' success is tricky and, ultimately, the value of original programming is driven by how you define success."
Add into the equation an uncertain post-Sept. 11 landscape, and an economic downturn that has some industry observers predicting nearly a $1 billion decline in advertising revenue this year for broadcast and cable and it gets even trickier, network programmers say.
"There's a hard time across the board finding ad revenue. We've already seen that the international market is getting much tougher and finding and maintaining partnerships is much tougher," said Delia Fine, A&E Network's vice president of film, drama and performing arts. An 11-year-veteran at A&E, Fine also said that there's an "overall uncertainty at the studios regarding what people want to watch right now."
Known primarily for original movies and miniseries, A&E has concentrated on "high-quality, intelligent" dramas, rather than comedies, according to Fine. It recently renewed its Tim Hutton vehicle, Nero Wolfe, but decided last week to end Sidney Lumet's gritty courtroom drama 100 Centre Street.
No Magic Formula
Unfortunately for programmers, there is no magic formula for creating a hit, signature series. "It's like trying to catch lighting in a bottle," said Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff, the former executive vice president of Entertainment at Lifetime who helped develop the networks' powerful Sunday night original programming block, and left earlier this month to become president of UPN Entertainment.
But despite the fat budgets, life at the broadcast networks isn't a cakewalk. In an attempt to reclaim ongoing audience erosion and lost revenues, broadcasters are chewing through new series and, ultimately, network executives, at an increasingly manic pace.
"Broadcast clearly doesn't feel like a fun place to create," said Showtime's executive vice president of original programming, Gary Levine. "A lot of very smart, competent people are being pressured to deliver something cosmetic. There's less patience than ever with new shows and increasingly there appears to be more desperation from the highest ranks."
Synchronicity is a key factor in creating a hit series, say network executives. "I would say that there's always a bit of alchemy and a lot of luck as part of the equation for a hit series," said Kelly Goode Abugov, senior vice president of programming for Lifetime. "You put out your best work and hope that it works for your audience."
"I think it's a miracle anything ever gets made," laughs A&E's Fine. "Series are the most difficult. They're a bigger commitment and a bigger risk."
The right script and the right cast combined with media buzz and heavy marketing efforts are key elements, said Brad Siegel, president of Turner Entertainment Networks. But even with that, he adds, disappointment abounds. "Many of the shows we've done have tested very well," Siegel notes. "But just because a show tests well doesn't mean that you're going to end up with a hit."
Case in point: Turner Network Television's original series Bull, which was cancelled last year in the wake of low ratings. "It was a critical hit," said Siegel. "But it didn't find a big enough audience. And then the stock market started crashing and people weren't very interested in seeing stockbrokers running around in their free time. It turned out our timing wasn't great, plus the show went off in a direction that didn't resonate with viewers."
Others speculate that many of cable's original series fall flat because they simply aren't up to snuff.
"I always ask myself, 'Is that long history of failure among scripted series proof that series can't work, or have the (cable) networks really committed to something of quality?' " said FX's Reilly. "I'm pretty underwhelmed with the quality of scripted shows on cable," he added. "I would be much more depressed about the prospects of doing my job if I really thought a lot of good shows were left dying on the vine. Instead, I think there's been a lot of mediocre shows on cable."
Reilly, who joined FX in 2000, is steeped in a series background. He previously served as president of Brad Grey Television, the television production arm of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, where he shepherded the development of shows like Just Shoot Me
and The Sopranos
. Prior to that he was vice president of drama at NBC, responsible for the pilots of ER
The Buzz Factor
While FX is launching two new shows with an eye towards creating a hit, Reilly said creating buzz is the mark of a breakout winner, just as much as creating ratings.
Pointing to Comedy Central's South Park
and VH1's Behind the Music, Reilly noted that while ratings are relatively modest, they're the types of shows that built brand. "Part of what you hope to do is penetrate the culture, creating a success beyond what the numbers bear out," he adds. "That's an equal measure of success."
spoof, Son of a Beach, is returning for a third season this year and the network will launch its first scripted drama, The Shield,
in March. Formerly titled Rampart, the series features Michael Chiklis (The Commish) as a rogue Los Angeles cop. The network also has slated the offbeat dark comedy Lucky
to debut in July replacing the comedy series Bad News, Mr Swanson, scrapped by FX following the exit of star-executive producer Jeremy Piven.
The hunt for a hit series is on at USA Network, which has struggled to fill the void left in its schedule from losing World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. programming to TNN in 2000. "If you're a general entertainment network there are clearly obstacles," said USA president Doug Herzog. "We're not in the original programming business like the broadcasters are, but we're very focused on original series and determined to get one launched successfully."
In the past USA found success with a Sunday night lineup that included original series Silk Stalkings
and La Femme Nikita, but more recently has churned through a number of failed offbeat series like GvsE
(which enjoyed a short run on Sci Fi Channel as Good vs. Evil), Manhattan AZ
When USA Cable president Stephen Chao exited the company in December, industry watchers said his inability to create a breakout series for USA Network was a contributing factor.
"Lately their shows skewed to a younger audience that didn't fit USA's demographic," said one rival network programmer. "They're history is with an audience that is slightly older skewing and they put on off-beat, younger appealing shows. It didn't mix with that Nash Bridges
USA is betting heavily on Dead Zone, a drama based on Stephen King's novel of the same name. At a reportedly reasonable cost of $1 million per episode, the series is slated to launch in June with 22 episodes ordered. Another series, Monk, about the adventures of a detective suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, will debut with a two-hour telefilm in June. And a martial arts-oriented series, Red Skies
also is scheduled to launch with a pilot telefilm in June.
USA hopes those series mesh with its plans to launch primetime theme nights to showcase its original movie and series programming. "Mysteries are a great franchise for our audience," said Herzog. "They're a little older and they like this stuff. No one else is doing it the way we are and with think its achievable goal to have, say, a mystery night on Fridays that would feature movies and series."
TNT is also in the hunt for a successful original series. After axing Bull
and shelving a second series, Breaking News,
last year, the network in December shuttered its stand-alone production unit with an eye toward downsizing its TNT Originals group.
But Siegel noted that despite those setbacks, TNT finished 2000 as the No. 2 basic cable network in primetime in all key demos. "We're going to be successful with or without a hit original series," Siegel said. "However, we know that having a hit original series will make us even more successful and more indispensable to viewers."
TNT is continuing development of numerous scripts with the hope of launching a breakout series. TNT's fantasy drama Witchblade, which averaged a 2.3 rating last summer, will return for a second season in June.
"Where cable has had success to date is in offering real alternative programming to the broadcasters," said Siegel. "Witchblade
is the highest rated original show in basic cable in virtually every demographic. It's a good show visually and an alternative to what the broadcasters offer. It found an audience."
Lifetime is finding success with its Sunday night lineup of Any Day Now, Strong Medicine
and The Division.
Those originals helped Lifetime earn an average household rating of 2.0 in 2001 and become basic cable's top network in primetime for the year.
But Any Day Now
is ending its four-year run with a two-part finale in March. And while the cast may be reunited for a movie down the line, Lifetime faces a gaping hole in its golden Sunday night schedule.
The network is set to announce plans later in the spring for a new series that would launch this summer, said Kelly Goode Abugov. "We know this: Our viewers want to see real women in realistic situations. That kind of character work is at the heart of what we do."
"We are first in every female demographic," she adds. "Part of our goal is to bring in new viewers for three hours on Sunday, where we can promote the rest of our week."
Premium Payoff, Promotion Push
Premium networks enjoy pushing creative boundaries with sexual situations, language and violence as pointed up by HBO's success with The Sopranos, Oz, and Sex and the City.
Showtime's Levine said that freedom is indispensable. "We enjoy an incredible freedom, and primarily that means being free of advertisers," he said. "It's not about demos for us. We don't have to play it safe so someone can advertise baby powder in the middle of our show. And because we're not as intensely concerned about ratings as the broadcast networks, we can allow a show to slowly grow and mature and find an audience."
Not every show benefits from that freedom. This year, Showtime cancelled two series, Leap Years
and Going to California. But the network was able to renew groundbreaking shows Soul Food, Resurrection Boulevard, Queer as Folk
and the quirky Chris Isaak Show. The network also has two new sci-fi series on tap for 2002: Odyssey 5
starring Peter Weller and Jeremiah, with Luke Perry and Malcom-Jamal Warner. Another one-hour drama, Street Time, starring Rob Morrow, will join the schedule later this year.
"I think its fair to say that while people come to pay cable for the occasional big feature or boxing match, what ultimately defines us is our original programming," Levine notes. "It's a challenge and opportunity to explore worlds and people and emotions that other networks can't touch."
Showtime budgets between $1.2 million and $1.3 million per episode for a one-hour series, and shoots in Canada when possible, an approach that can save as much as $400,000 per episode.
"We've done a very good job of getting the quality on the screen without writing a blank check," Levine said. "Some of it involves Canada and some of it involves smaller episodic orders and co-productions."
A key factor in creating a hit is getting the horse to the trough, or in this case the audience to the series. "The primary marketing tool of any broadcast network is on-air promotion," said Levine. "Obviously that doesn't work the same way for pay cable. You have to be more aggressive in promoting a show."
A veteran of Warner Bros. TV, where he helped develop series such as NBC's The West Wing
and Third Watch, Levine said Showtime taps into parent company Viacom Inc.'s stable of networks for promotional support. "In addition to MTV, Nickelodeon, CBS and UPN, they have a humongous network of billboards and radio stations."
"Of course we pay for the promotion," he adds. "But we get a family discount.
FX's Reilly finds cable's smaller budgets to be "oddly liberating." Broadcast budgets can be "stultifying with the size and the weight of the commitment."
"I find it tougher on the promotion side. We have a fraction of the budget some of our competitors have," Reilly said. FX, he noted, blankets the air with promos in "a fairly shameless way" to create buzz for an original movie or series and does targeted spot cable and radio buys. Fox News and Fox Sports also offer promotional support, he said.
Reilly added that the complex holdings of today's modern entertainment companies both helps and hinders a network's efforts. "It's always been a long shot business, and the corporate pressure makes it more so," he said. "Companies have amassed all these assets and audience fragmentation is only hurting them five different ways."
"But in the end the job is about the magic of telling a great story," he said. "You want to create a compelling reason for people to tune in, find a hook, create a bond. That's what it's all about."