‘Still Life’ With Slim Chance

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Almost a year ago, Fox brought normally cynical media buyers to tears by showing them clips of a new drama, “Still Life,” at its upfront presentation in New York.
Fox picked up the show for midseason, but much like “Keen Eddie,” which wound up premiering in June last year, “Still Life” has yet to air, with just over a month left in the current broadcast season.
While Fox has had its share of problems launching scripted programming this year, “Still Life” could be an even harder sell because it’s an emotional, softer family drama. “Still Life” centers on a family struggling to cope with the death of its eldest son, who in a twist serves as the unseen narrator of the show.
Ten to 15 years ago, softer family dramas-such as “My So-Called Life,” “Party of Five,” “Relativity,” “Sisters” and “A Year in the Life”-were a staple in prime-time television. Not all of them drew high ratings and some lasted only a season (“My So-Called Life” and “Relativity”), but many drew critical praise and had long runs (“Party of Five” and “Sisters”).
In today’s climate, with a fragmented television audience and reality television shows claiming six of the top 10 spots among adults 18 to 49 this season to date, whether there is still a market for these types of shows remains to be seen.
“Everwood”-which has been a modest hit for The WB and was just renewed for another year-is the only show on the broadcast networks that relies on good old-fashioned emotion and not gimmicks to drive story lines.
“I’m hoping it’s a cyclical kind of thing,” said Marshall Herskovitz, who was at the forefront of the genre as executive producer of “My So-Called Life,” “Thirtysomething” and “Once and Again” with his producing partner Ed Zwick. “We’re just in a very weird moment in television between the ascendance of the reality show and the ascendance of the police procedural. … No one really understands [why], but the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for those shows. The concept of a family drama is just not what the public seems to want to watch right now.”
Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming at Fox, said the network is happy from a creative standpoint with the seven episodes of “Still Life” that have already been produced. But as of late last week, Fox hadn’t found a place on the schedule for it yet. “There are shows that tend to be smaller in idea, so you want to protect them a little bit,” he said.
Given that Fox’s schedule is held together by two nights of megahit “American Idol,” protected time slots on Fox are hard to come by. Just ask the producers of the quirky, critically praised “Wonderfalls,” which died a swift death after being given arguably the two worst time slots on Fox’s schedule.
Mr. Erwich said there is still a market for softer, family dramas, but there are a lot of questions that need to be resolved. “The question is just how big of a market is there?” he said. “How do you keep them from becoming too sad? Do you have the patience to hang in there with them because they tend to be smaller shows?”
Despite the questions, Mr. Erwich said Fox bought “Still Life” because “At some point you just fall in love with the characters and kind of can’t help yourself, rules or no rules. It had a little bit of a device to it. It felt like it had a really strong emotional tone to it. We just really liked it.”
However, even when a network buys a softer family drama, some producers say they feel like the shows don’t get the respect they deserve, which is evident in poor time slots or constant time slot moves.
“There’s always been a stigma attached to soft shows or to being a soft writer,” said Ron Cowen, who created and executive produced NBC’s “Sisters” with Dan Lipman and currently executive produces Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.” “When a soft show gets on the air and succeeds, it’s a fluke because it’s not really what they are looking for or what they want.”
Mr. Cowen said Lilly Tartikoff, wife of then-NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff, is the sole reason “Sisters” made it on the air in 1991. “Sisters” was developed for the fall 1990-91 season but didn’t make it onto the fall schedule because Mr. Tartikoff was waffling about the show. His wife loved it and convinced him to give it a chance, Mr. Cowen said. NBC finally put it on in May, the worst time of year, at 10 p.m. Saturday nights, one of the worst time slots.
Despite the odds, “Sisters” pulled huge demographic numbers and averaged a 5.9 rating in adults 18 to 49, ranking No. 66 out of all shows, and 14.1 million viewers in its first season.
Even though the show’s ratings stayed steady during the show’s first four seasons and it continued to deliver large female demographics, “Every year we were the last show to get renewed,” Mr. Cowen said. “That to me meant they never had very much faith in the show, and we were quite mystified by that.”
Mr. Herskovitz said he felt ABC was patient with “Once and Again,” but said the seven time slot changes over three seasons made it difficult for the show to retain and grow its audience. The show premiered in September 1999 at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, averaging a 5.5/15 in adults 18 to 49, which was No. 1 in its time slot against CBS’s “Judging Amy” and NBC’s “Dateline.”
“There’s a lot of irony in the fate of `Once and Again,”’ Mr. Herskovitz said. “The show was relentlessly moved from time slot to time slot. Each time it moved it lost a couple hundred thousand viewers. That’s a big part of why it finally had numbers they couldn’t support. There’s still an irony there, which is the final numbers for `Once and Again’ are pretty much the average of ABC now. If `Once and Again’ were to go back on the air it might be a successful show for ABC.”
Sure enough, in the 10 p.m. Monday time slot, its final stop before being canceled, “Once and Again” was averaging a 3.3/9 in adults 18 to 49 and 7.4 million viewers. Season-to-date this year, ABC as a whole is averaging a 3.3/9 in the demo and 9.2 million viewers.
Granted, viewer erosion has taken its toll in the past decade on all the broadcast networks’ ratings. For example, that 5.9 rating for the first season of “Sisters” on Saturday nights today would place it in the top 20 shows, and it’s far above NBC’s 2.2/7 Saturday night average so far this season.
Mr. Herskovitz said he has not tried to sell a softer drama to the networks since “Once and Again” because he and Mr. Zwick decided to try some different forms-such as producing the feature film “The Last Samurai”-than the family dramas they were known for.
Not every network is shying away from family dramas. The WB continues to develop family dramas such as “7th Heaven” and “Everwood,” and Nina Tassler, senior VP of drama at CBS, said 80 percent of the dramas CBS has in development for next season have a family element to them.
One of that network’s biggest successes this year has been “Joan of Arcadia,” which at its core is a family drama, with the twist being that Joan talks to God.
Ms. Tassler said CBS looks for family dramas that include a franchise element, such as a cop or a lawyer, or a larger concept like God in “Joan” that can help drive story lines.
“[Softer family dramas] are harder to sustain over time,” Ms. Tassler said. “You have to have some additional story drive and it can come in the form of a hook or a device. It can come in the form of another franchise. It can come in the form of a multigenerational show. In today’s market, your stories have to have momentum and drive.
“Shows like `Judging Amy’ and `Joan’ can deal with the same issues as `Once and Again,’ but `Once and Again’ seemed to be isolated in its storytelling,” she said. “When you look at `Amy’ and `Joan,’ those shows do address the fact or deal with the realities of the external pressures we have in all of our lives.”
The Afterlife
Softer family dramas often have an economic strike against them because they usually don’t rerun well or sell very well on the international or off-network marketplaces. 20th
Century Fox Television was the original studio behind “Joan.” But after CBS ordered the pilot, 20th Century Fox decided that the show didn’t have very lucrative back-end prospects and it wasn’t worth the risk to deficit-finance the show. Sony Pictures Television and CBS Productions then stepped in to produce the show.
However, some studio executives point out that while the shows may not sell as well on the back-end, they are cheaper to make than hours such as “24,” “CSI” or “Alias,” which make heavy use of expensive special effects. As long as a family show’s deficit is managed well, it can be profitable for a studio.
The WB’s dramas are proof of that. Warner Bros. sold the off-network rights for “Gilmore Girls” for $650,000 an episode and “Smallville” for $750,000, according to sources. While those shows aren’t as soft as “Everwood,” if the studio gets anywhere near those numbers when it takes “Everwood” out to sale, the show will make a nice profit because its deficit isn’t as large as, say, “Alias’s.”
“What you won’t see on a family drama is a `Without a Trace’-level sale,” said one studio executive. “Clearly, the family genre can’t generate, in the current environment, a level of back-end equivalent to some of the procedural dramas like `CSI’ and `Without a Trace.’ In response to that, the studio should have a lower deficit tolerance for the family drama.
“As long as the deficit is managed properly and there is a reasonable amount of international revenue offsetting that initial deficit, you can effectively generate a positive business model off a smaller off-network sale than is required for a `CSI’ or `Without a Trace.”’
Economics aside, Mr. Cowen said he’s sad to see the soft family genre fade away. “I hate to be a pessimist, but unless one of these shows were a fluke, I find it hard to imagine that kind of show ever coming back,” he said. “Even though you can cite economics and you can cite that it doesn’t rerun well, if something is of very high quality it deserves a chance to have a life.”