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Net Chiefs: Old Rules Out of Date

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It’s broke, so let’s fix it.
That was the message broadcast television executives conveyed to TV critics last week at the Television Critics Association press tour in Hollywood. After a fall season in which much of the new programming fell flat, executives from NBC, ABC and The WB announced new programming and scheduling strategies to get viewers to tune in.
“There’s no question that we’re in a time in television where very few of the old rules apply,” said Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC entertainment, news and cable group. “If we play by the old rules, we’re all going to get left behind.”
Network execs, beaten down by viewer erosion to cable, have been talking the “52-weeks-a-year business” talk for a few years, but now they’re starting to take action.
“We need the business to catch up with what the audience is telling us,” said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who has been working the past two years to change the traditional development cycle by taking pitches year-round and accelerating the pilot-ordering process.
This year, Fox gave its writers earlier deadlines to turn in scripts and routinely asks show creators to spin off a presentation of the show while shooting the pilot to give network executives a better idea of what the finished product will look like. Getting talent agencies and writers/producers on board was not an easy feat.
“It’s taken two years to do it,” Ms. Berman said. “It was not fun or pretty in the beginning. It’s a whole lot easier now.”
Fox plans to seamlessly move from May into June with new programming, Ms. Berman said. Two shows targeted for summer are the reality show “Casino” from Mark Burnett and a scripted drama from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson called “The Jury,” which is a product of Fox’s accelerated production schedule.
While Fox has been leading the year-round movement, other networks are jumping on board.
NBC plans to take advantage of the promotional platform the Summer Olympics will offer by launching the majority of its fall schedule in the two weeks directly following the Games, which end Aug. 29.
“We are not going to let the calendar dictate when the season starts,” Mr. Zucker said. “We would be silly to wait three weeks after the Olympics and lose that promo base.”
The early launch will include new and returning shows. Executive producers of current shows have been apprised of the plan so they can arrange production schedules for next season to begin two to three weeks early. NBC won’t have to decide on pickups for new shows any earlier than the usual May deadline, Mr. Zucker said. New shows will start production immediately after getting picked up instead of waiting a few weeks as they traditionally do.
The early rollout also means that some shows will end in early May before the sweeps are over. May sweeps is usually reserved for big season finales and stunts to propel a network to a victory that advertisers still deem important.
Mr. Zucker said early finishes don’t concern him because the business is moving toward a 52-week-a-year schedule, which will eventually make the sweeps obsolete, especially as new ratings technology takes hold. Instead, NBC could start launching some of its summer programming in May for a seamless transition.
ABC executives said they don’t plan to launch their fall schedule any earlier than usual, but this season they are considering ending some series before May so they won’t have to air as many repeats in March and April.
“We do have some very strong event programming we can do toward the end of May,” said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne.
In addition to committing to year-round programming, networks are also experimenting with new ways to schedule and promote scripted series.
Some are borrowing a page from reality series. Part of their appeal is that viewers don’t have to make a huge time commitment to reality shows, since most last only six or eight episodes and the run isn’t interrupted by repeats. ABC, which has had serious problems launching a successful drama in the past three years, is experimenting this spring with positioning new drama launches as short events, rather than series.
ABC is also stealing a page from HBO’s playbook by scheduling midseason drama “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital” for 13 consecutive weeks starting Wednesday, Feb. 25. It will also be promoted as an “event” series. New drama “The D.A.” will be promoted as a four-part series event to viewers, as will the four-episode relaunch of “Karen Sisco.”
Ms. Lyne and ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun said they are looking at their development for next season to see if any of the proposed shows lend themselves to a shorter-order series.
The problem with eight- or 13-episode series is, however, that it’s harder for the studio and network to make money off of them. Studios usually recoup their costs when a series is sold into syndication, which usually doesn’t happen until 75 to 100 episodes have been produced.
WB executives are considering an approach that would allow a show to run for 22 weeks straight in the same time slot. WB Co-CEO Jordan Levin and Co-Chairman Garth Ancier said they’ve discussed airing a show in a nontraditional pattern, such as from January to August or March to December, so a series wouldn’t lose momentum with repeats.