While the broadcast networks are still betting big on reality programming, cable is hoping to make at least a little noise with a select crop of scripted dramas.
Already this year, USA Network's Monk, which is being repurposed on ABC, has been racking up blockbuster ratings with its Friday-night premieres. USA is also hoping to break through the clutter in March with Touching Evil, a dark series executive-produced by Bruce Willis, about a detective who returns to work for the FBI after surviving a near-fatal gunshot wound.
Touching Evil is the antithesis of Monk, seeming to have more in common, relative to its tone and its supernatural leanings, with the network's other original series hit The Dead Zone.
"Monk is cotton candy," USA Network president Doug Herzog said. "This is a little bit of a darker take on the subject. Moodier. It's a more forward-leaning contemporary take on a detective show than certainly we've had before."
USA has also greenlighted 4400, a science-fiction limited series from Francis Ford Coppola, and commissioned a two-hour pilot for Dean Koontz's Frankenstein
from Martin Scorsese and author Koontz.
Other basic-cable services are also carefully choosing which dramatic series to move forward with. FX just closed a deal to do a 13-episode series with Denis Leary, Rescue Me,
about firefighters in New York City.
Cable networks that have enjoyed success with scripted dramas will continue doing them, "especially as [the broadcast] networks — with the pressures of sweeps on their hands — gravitate to an increasing level of reality programming," said FX president Peter Liguori.
"It opens up the opportunity for cable — on a more creative, almost guerilla-like fashion — to sweep down and occupy some of that space with high-quality scripted shows."
Even Turner Network Television, which has eschewed original-scripted series for several years, is gingerly dabbling in the genre with limited-run projects. TNT's six-part series about the war on terrorism, The Grid,
is slated for this summer, while Into the West, a 12-hour epic from Steven Spielberg about the settling of the American West, is set to run next year.
"We are getting into the original-series business," said Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS — although competitors dispute that assertion.
Original scripted dramas have become a mainstay of both the broad-based general-entertainment networks as well as some of the more targeted vertical networks, working as brand builders that also make a channel unique, according to Bob DeBitetto, senior vice president of programming for A&E Network.
"Some of those shows are beginning to compete pretty seriously with broadcast for eyeballs," he said.
RISKS AND REWARDS
But investing in original-scripted hour-long dramas isn't for the faint of heart, as any cable-network executive will tell you. Last year, FX's Lucky
and USA's Peacemakers
were cancelled. And ESPN earlier this month punted on renewing its first dramatic series, the controversial Playmakers,
in part because the NFL hated the show. Undaunted, ESPN said it is still pursuing dramas.
"It's a high-cost, high-risk, high-reward part of the business," DeBitetto said. "It's not for every company and it's not for every network. There are other models, particularly with some of the networks that are more vertically themed."
But then, "despite the risks — and there are significant risks, financially, and for every success there's a failure, for every Nip/Tuck
there's a Lucky
— the networks that are able to deal with the financial risk are pursuing it aggressively," DeBitetto said.
Scripted hour-long dramas certainly have been the ticket for USA under the helm of Herzog, who is leaving the network to rejoin one of his former employers, Comedy Central. USA, which NBC is acquiring as part of its purchase of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, has enjoyed a better-than-average record with its Monk
and The Dead Zone.
USA's audience is 25 to 54 and "still has an appetite for quality scripted programming," according to Herzog. "So we just thought we should make our mark there. We could deliver something that the [broadcast] networks aren't delivering. We can do it in an interesting and original way. We can win with this."
While USA has had some reality-show efforts, its main focus has been offering scripted programming in contrast to the Fear Factors
the Big Four are airing, according to Herzog.
"We want to be a true alternative," he said. "So if they're doing a ton of reality, then we shouldn't be. Why would you come to USA to see the umpteenth version of a dating show, or a Survivor
USA didn't fare as well last year with its third recent original scripted series entry, Peacemakers,
which some wags dubbed Pacemakers,
a poke at the older audience it attracted.
The show, a kind of western CSI,
averaged a strong 2.4 household rating, but skewed grayer than USA wanted, according to Rick Holzman, senior vice president of strategic research for the Universal Television Group, which owns USA, Sci Fi Channel and Trio.
FX, which is testing the reality waters with Todd TV,
remains one of the basic-cable's biggest proponents of scripted dramas.
"As far as FX goes, we continue to feel it is important for us to build upon the successes we've had with The Shield
which are the No. 1 and No. 2 18-to-49 shows on basic cable," Liguori said. "We hope that Rescue Me
will further our scripted efforts and continue to add to the brand. It is absolutely critical for cable to continue to invest in original programming. We can't go back to being a bunch of rerun channels, much like TNT and TBS [Superstation] are."
THE TURNER PHILSOPHY
Turner officials, not surprisingly, deny that TBS and TNT are "rerun" networks. TBS has original reality shows, they said. And top-rated TNT has a mix of original and off-network programming — a lineup of original movies, high-profile theatricals, sports like NASCAR and the National Basketball Association, along with fare like Law & Order —
that now provides the proper base for the original scripted series it's launching.
"We're a hit waiting to happen with the strength our schedule, versus others who every week have their shows lead in by a different movie, which puts their shows at peril because every movie usually has a unique audience," Koonin said.
Several years ago TNT made some forays into original dramas, including the Wall Street-set Bull,
which it cancelled. It then decided not to run a second series, Breaking News, which had been produced.
"Unfortunately, TNT came up with that thing, 'We know drama,' the minute they decided to get out of the drama business," said Bob Greenblatt, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks Inc.
TNT, which maintains it has in fact made drama its brand with shows ranging from Law & Order
to its movies, also pulled the plug an original series that was performing fairly well, Witchblade,
about 18 months ago.
"Witchblade, while it was good for our cable partners and good for advertisers, we didn't see continued growth," Koonin said. "It plateaued. It did not have the acclaim. It had a fun element but it didn't raise the patina."
TNT wants to see ratings growth from any original series it does, to win critical acclaim and to bring value to advertisers and cable operators, according to Koonin. Witchblade
was missing several of those elements, which led to its demise, he said.
"Our point of doing original series is to expand the pool of viewers that we bring to the network, to bring attention, like [the original movie] Goodbye Girl," Koonin said. "It was featured in hundreds of articles that talked about the network. It gives TNT another bridge for the consumer to consider the fare that we're doing. From a ratings and ad viewpoint, we're always rivaling broadcast when we do these."
Today, TNT, with a lead-in like Law & Order, has created the right environment, and primetime audience flow to do scripted series, according Koonin.
"A couple of years ago, when we launched series on TNT, we didn't have the consistency of schedule that would ensure that we would be bringing in the right viewers," he said. "When your schedule is comprised mainly of movies that change all the time, it's very hard to develop toward [a scripted series]," Koonin said. "I'll never forget that Bull, one week, was brought in by Crocodile Dundee
and another week it was brought in by a drama."
That's not the kind of audience flow that's conducive to success for a scripted show, according to Koonin.
"What works is the consistency of flow," he said. "So we took a couple of years off [scripted series] until we built the right consistency. You have got to build a foundation and walls for a house before you put on the roof. And we have lots of competitors who put on the roof, but they're lacking the foundation. For us it's going to be about leveraging the foundation."
The "new reality" of scripted series for TNT and others is smaller orders, according to Koonin.
"People are trying to reduce their risk," he said. "And one of the ways to do it … is trying some of these more limited series. The other way we're looking at it is similar to what FX has done with Nip/Tuck, which is short-order series — 13, 15 episodes. Those are the two big emerging trends. You'll see lots of drama development. You'll see it from us, you'll see it from others. The market's active. But it's taking a metamorphosis. It's taking a different form."
These "short-order series" have several benefits to a programmer.
"It allows for higher quality of talent, because they're not committing for six years," Koonin said. "Ways to maximize a schedule, ways to minimize risk, are kind of the new watch words, the new ideas that all network executives really have to put front and center ... At this moment in time there's a lot of activity, but it's definitely a different kind of business than it has been."
Other cable programmers quibble about TNT's claim that it is getting back into the original-series game, and so the semantics of what constitutes a "series" versus a "miniseries" becomes an issue.
"They [TNT] want to sound like they're in the series business," even though The Grid
"is a miniseries basically," Greenblatt said.
As FX's Liguori sees it, TNT is "taking a whack" at "short-order series" and "mini-series" that are not expandable like a traditional scripted series.
TNT adamantly avoids the term miniseries in characterizing both The Grid
and Into the West. Arguing its point, Turner pointed out that the projects will be scheduled like a traditional series —one hour a week for consecutive weeks — and are potentially expandable.
FINDING THE RIGHT TONES
Apart from Rescue Me,
FX also has other scripted series in development. The network is picky about what it pursues.
"The shows we are looking for are first and foremost of the highest-quality storytelling you can get, and they take place in a bold world and they are bold tonally and they are creatively courageous," Liguori said. "By far and away, it's my mission to brand FX, and I'm hoping to create shows other networks would not have the appetite for. If in fact I'm airing shows that could easily and readily go to network, I don't know if I'm doing basic cable or FX any favors."
So a show like Monk,
as big of Nielsen hit as it is, would not really fit FX, according to Liguori.
"The transferability of Monk
to ABC is a great financial play, and is a win-win for ABC and USA, but it speaks to tonality and quality of that show, which is that it's a network-like show," Liguori said.
"And that is not by any means to sound disparaging, it's not. But they're playing beautifully to USA's core audience, which is fairly similar to a CBS and an ABC. I, on the other hand, am looking for a psychographic that is more line with an appetite for MTV, Comedy Central, Showtime and HBO. Psychographically, it's an audience which is thirstier for more adventurous programming."
USA couldn't be any more pleased with Monk,
which posted a 4.7 ratings with one of its recent episodes.
"We are extremely happy with our progress and our evolution and our success with original scripted programming," Herzog said. "Monk
is the highest-rated program on basic cable. Dead Zone
continues to be a big performer."
Premium services such as HBO and Showtime, with their cutting-edge fare and freedom from advertiser pressure, set the stage for the kind of shows FX is doing, according to Greenblatt. Showtime's new series The L Word,
about lesbians in L.A., has drawn critical praise and strong viewership. It's already been renewed.
"FX is a direct result of what was happening on premium cable," Greenblatt said. "The premium networks have kind of lead the way in terms of getting attention and doing that are really different and unique. Obviously, we have the ability to do some things that basic cable networks can't do."
Lifetime Television — home to dramas like Strong Medicine
— has expanded its original-series block from one night to two, has completed two scripted pilots, The Coven
and Class Action.
The women's network is now evaluating the pilots, according to Rick Haskins, executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime Entertainment Services.
"Drama has always been really important to Lifetime," he said. "We were one of the pioneers doing the scripted series on cable. And you're going to continue to see us being a leader in dramas, in scripted series, on cable. It brings in new viewers. It's very important as a marketing and branding tool."
Sci Fi Channel, while occupying a narrower niche than a Lifetime or USA, has nonetheless been aggressive in doing scripted dramas. And it has more of them in the works this year, just greenlighting Battlestar Galactica
as a series.
"Sci Fi has been known for its scripted development," Sci Fi president Bonnie Hammer said. "We also — since we launched our first block of original series back in March '99 — still really believe in scripted series for the channel, one, because if you really think about the definition of sci fi, it's really speculative fiction. So for us to go away from it in total would be going against the genre and many of the viewers and eyeballs who actually come to us. So we'll always have big events and scripted series."
Sci Fi, whose Stargate SG-1
has logged in some strong numbers this season, including a 2.2 household rating, will debut a sequel series to that show this summer, Stargate Atlantis.
has been an outrageous performer for Sci Fi," Hammer said. "It's such an incredible franchise we want to own the next one. We're in the process of casting that."
The net's development pipeline also continues to pump. Sci Fi just finished a pilot called Dead Lawyers,
about attorneys who, after their deaths, have to redeem their misdeeds by coming back in the body of somebody else and undo their wrongdoing. F. Murray Abraham is in the cast.
"It's a little bit L.A. Law
with a huge twist," Hammer said. "It's very funny and very smart."
It has also started to produce a pilot called Anonymous Rex,
an offbeat gumshoe detective story in which dinosaurs are not extinct, but are living among humans in disguise.
"This could absolutely be our signature series," Hammer said.
Her network also has a limited series in the works, Five Days to Midnight
starring Randy Quaid and Timothy Hutton, about a man who finds out he's going to be murdered in five days and has to figure out who will try to kill him.
A&E a few years ago had the original hour-long dramas Nero Wolfe and 100 Centre Street on the air.
"Those were two good efforts," DeBitetto said. "They were both pretty well executed, well produced, well written. Yet they did not work well enough in terms of the ratings and the viewership as a function of the cost of those shows."
He joined A&E a year ago, and prioritized what the network needs to do to reinvigorate its programming.
"Going back to the development of one-hour drama is part of our plan, but it is not a part of our plan we're not ready to discuss in any detail," DeBitetto said. "It's something we're just turning our attention to right now."
A&E did just order another six episodes of MI-5.
The network acquired the first six episodes of the BBC show, and then co-produced another 10 shows with the BBC.
The series, about hunting terrorists, worked on a number of levels for A&E in that it was well reviewed, topical and appealed to younger viewer than the network's usual audience.
Hallmark Channel is planning to do 16 mystery movies, "four movies in four spokes," that may provide the basis for a scripted series down the road, according to Dave Kenin, the network's executive vice president of programming. Each "spoke" will likely focus on a character of group of characters. The telepics will air on Sunday night, when Hallmark airs off-network mysteries such as Quincy and Columbo.
"We may build from that, if we find a character in those movies, we may take that character and go to a series," he said.
That's a less risky route for Hallmark Channel now than forging ahead and trying to do a scripted series.
"It's much safer for us," Kenin said. "We don't have a place to make a series work easily right now. We almost run nothing once a week. It requires a lot of structure."