Dramatic Uptick in Serials

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Mirroring recent prime-time successes, the broadcast networks’ 2005-06 drama development slates are dominated by serials, envelope-pushing concepts, soaps and next-generation procedurals.

Although the launch of the 2005-06 prime-time season is 11 months away, the majority of drama series that will premiere next year have already been bought by the networks. For most broadcast networks, this week marks the close of the buying season for new drama ideas. In broad terms, the networks ordered many of the same concepts they purchased last year-detective procedurals, “edgy” family shows and adaptations of books abound. But like every buying season, what worked last year and what appears to be working so far this season-like ABC’s event serial “Lost,” CBS’s “CSI” franchise and even cable network FX’s “Nip/Tuck”-have influenced the networks as much as the impending holes created by soon-to-be canceled series.

Thanks to the success of ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” networks that have shied away from serialized dramas in the face of successful procedural franchises are reconsidering the genre. Larry Salz, a TV agent at United Talent Agency, said both shows have greatly impacted development.

“You hear almost every executive say `We need to find our “Lost,” those big things people can’t turn away from,”‘ he said. “Even those networks that are closed are still sort of out there saying, `We want to find that big project, that headline-grabbing-type show.”‘

“Lost” didn’t debut until late September, long after most networks have done the bulk of their drama buying. This means networks often make an eleventh-hour mad dash at the end of the buying season to pick up projects that capitalize on the new season’s breakout hits, according to Jennifer Nicholson-Salke, senior VP, 20th Century Fox Television.

“There’s always the whiplash that occurs right about now,” she said. “Every year it’s something different. Everybody is trying to attack the procedural from a different angle, and ironically some show will launch that nobody is developing, and something like `Desperate Housewives’ and `Lost’ comes out.”

For Cori Wellins, a VP at the William Morris Agency, the drama-buying season was more free-form this year than in seasons past. (Comedy development, which always tends to lag drama buys, is still open and will not close for a few more weeks.) “The networks were open to a broader expression of shows,” she said. “Instead of every network wanting one procedural show and only that procedural show, they were saying `bring us whatever you have. We’re open to everything.”‘

Mr. Salz said that openness also means broadcast networks were looking for the envelope-pushing dramas that have helped define the genre on cable.

“[The show] people are talking about is `Nip/Tuck,”‘ Mr. Salz said. “That started a couple years ago, coming out of HBO and FX. Push it to try to do those kind of shows on network, as much as one can.”

ABC has bought a project with a “Nip/Tuck”-like feel set in the world of L.A. real estate agents, while CBS is developing a script about a crime scene cleanup crew with a feel similar to “Six Feet Under.”

But Mr. Salz said this doesn’t mean that networks are abandoning all traditional genres for the sake of being ground-breaking.

“Based on the shows that are doing well, they are taking more chances,” he said. “But then you look at the `CSI’ franchise and `Law & Order,’ and they do extremely well. If you look even at 10 [p.m. (ET)] on Wednesday night, you have three shows there that all do really well: `Law & Order,’ `CSI: NY,’ and `Wife Swap.’ All of those shows pull in really great numbers. It shows you can coexist in the same time slot.”

Craig Erwich, executive VP, programming, for Fox Broadcasting Company, said his network is a natural destination for producers interested in developing soaps, but the difficult nature of pulling off a serialized, character-based drama can scare off many writers who see a structured procedural as a safer bet.

“People bring that to us because we’ve had success with that [genre],” he said of soaps. “I think people are careful of going into that because they generally require a lot of patience. I’ve talked to producers who refuse to go into that genre because they don’t think there’s any money in it, and that’s too bad because the audience likes that genre.”

Several networks are still on the hunt for nighttime soaps, a genre that has been big business in the past but has eluded success since Fox’s “Melrose Place,” at least until last season’s “The O.C.,” also on Fox.

“That has become a really serious genre that all the networks are looking at,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of TVTracker.com, an online service that follows network development sales. That’s in part because of the success of reality TV shows, which are similarly edited and have the same personality dynamics, she said.

ABC, CBS and Fox all have purchased Texas-based soaps, while UPN is developing one set in Hollywood. Fox isn’t interested only in Texas-the network has picked up a sudsy project set at a makeup company and one with a “Beauty and the Beast” element.

Still, even with three “CSIs” and three “Law & Orders” on the air, the networks’ appetite for procedurals continues to be strong. But Ms. Nicholson-Salke said the networks are looking to take the format in new directions.

“In order not to be a complete duplicative-story-driven, case-driven, not so much character-driven show-they feel like they have to come at a different angle to get it elevated,” she said. “What’s the character-driven procedural, where you can tell a high-stakes, closed-ended case but you can explore a character along the way? ABC made a huge play for procedural shows this year, CBS wanted a little bit less, obviously because they have them-NBC as well. And Fox is looking at them.”

ABC is developing a “CSI”-like project with a “Silence of the Lambs” twist, while CBS is developing a medical drama where lawyers team with doctors in a Boston hospital. Fox is working on a crime drama with a pair of cops who solve cases differently, NBC is developing a script about a former addict who helps the police solve crimes and The WB has a put pilot based on a teenage lawyer.

Script-buying season is just the beginning, however, since networks won’t see scripts until the end of the year. In January, the networks announce which of the lucky few scripts make it to the next step-getting picked up to pilot.

Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at UPN, said her network has already taken steps to develop shows that take the procedural show to the next level. But in many instances of development, networks make choices not because of the marketplace, but because of their own unique needs, which can differ greatly from network to network.

“For us, it all depends on how it’s done,” she said. “If you look at `Kevin Hill,’ it’s a legal show, but it’s very character-driven. `Veronica Mars’ is also a procedural show, but in a different way. Anything we look at will not be quite down the middle.”

Ms. Ostroff said everyone focuses at this time of year on the initial sale, but what is first said in a pitch often has very little to do with a show’s overall success, since television is less about concept and much more about execution.

“Sometimes you hear a premise and it sounds so ordinary,” she said. “If I told you what `Kevin Hill’ was about, it would sound so ordinary. Even `Desperate Housewives’ for that matter-a bunch of women who live on a cul-de-sac and aren’t thrilled with their lives. We’ve all heard that pitch a thousand times. We’ve all developed that script a thousand times. But the series-it’s fresh, it’s original and true.”