ABC Network’s Five-Act Play

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC has embarked on a broad prime-time experiment designed to curb erosion and hold on to viewers through the last commercial breaks during its shows.
Producers of most of ABC’s dramas have been asked by the network to tell their story in five acts, instead of the usual four acts plus teaser, and ABC comedy producers have begun making comparable structural changes to move program content to after the final commercial break.
That last commercial break is currently followed by fast-rolling closing credits, perhaps a preview and a cluster of commercials. In other words, it is largely an invitation for viewers to take a snack or bathroom break or to change channels.
If ABC’s experiment works, it could have some of America’s refrigerator doors opening and toilets flushing on a different schedule. More germane to the business model of network television, if it works the experiment could pay off with increased viewership for the final commercial break.
ABC, which began notifying producers several weeks ago, thinks it could boost the ratings for the final minutes of its program blocks by one- to two-tenths of a ratings point, providing a significant boost in the value of commercial time within a program without adding more commercials.
“In looking at our dramas and comedies, we just thought it would be smart to come up with a way to keep viewers throughout the entire hour or half-hour,” an ABC spokesman said.“To that end, having content after the commercial break made sense.”
Sources familiar with ABC’s longest-running dramas say that the network has not approached “NYPD Blue” creator Steven Bochco and that “The Practice” creator David E. Kelley waved off the proposal as more likely to dilute drama than extend it. But “Alias,” “10-8” and “Threat Matrix” are said to be on board.
So is “Line of Fire,” the FBI drama from Rod Lurie (“The Contender”) that debuts Tuesday. “Fire” will go to the five-act format in its ninth episode.
When ABC broached the idea of a fifth act, the first instinct of “Line of Fire” producers was to flinch, admitted Jeff Melvoin, an executive producer whose resume includes “Remington Steele,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “Northern Exposure.”
While the five-act format is not revolutionary, it is not the norm. TV has favored the four- act structure because it can be approached much like the essential three-act model in which, as Mr. Melvoin put it, “You get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him and then bring him down.”
Mr. Melvoin wondered at first whether viewers would find the more broken-up format “confusing or off-putting.” But he said, thus far, “We haven’t noticed any unusual disruption to the flow of the drama” on the script page or in the editing process, and the show is now in production on the 11th and 12th episodes of the 13-episode order.
“We’ve worked with it,” Mr. Melvoin said. He added that he and fellow executive producers were convinced that ABC wanted “what was best for our show” and agreed to what the network called an experiment “in the spirit of collaboration.”
As word of the format changes began to seep through the Hollywood creative community in recent weeks, the reaction was not a collective thumbs up.
Some suggest that one motivation was to put ABC’s shows out of rhythm with other networks in terms of when commercial breaks occur, which might cut down on channel surfing. Others, however, believe the repositioned commercial breaks could cost the network viewers who during an ABC break will wander to another program already in progress, and stay.
Sources said the reaction at “The Practice” was rooted in the fear that since dramatic tension has to build and peak in each act, shortening acts would likely dilute tension and prove to be a creative disaster.
But the ABC spokesman stressed that the changes have been instituted on a case-by-case basis and are not out of character with ABC tradition. “We’ve always played with the structure of our shows. This is just moving the last act break,” the ABC spokesman said.