Cast, Cost Pruning Set for May Sweeps

Apr 23, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Not everybody is going to survive May sweeps.

Producers will nuke a major character on CBS’s “Jericho.” At least one beachgoer on ABC’s “Lost” won’t be found next fall. One of NBC’s “Heroes,” if not more, will have a heroic death.

Increasingly for prime-time series, May sweeps means cleaning house.

Pruning the series-regular ranks can help a show both dramatically and financially.

“At the very same moment networks are under major financial stress and trying desperately to reduce their costs, they’ve gotten locked into these big-cast, expensive shows,” said Tim Brooks, TV historian and executive VP of research at Lifetime. “It’s been ‘attack of the accountants.'”

The popularity of cinematic ensemble dramas in recent years has crashed into the bottom-line reality of softening prime-time ratings. So showrunners are taking a cue from whack-heavy series like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and Fox’s “24” and increasingly relying on character deaths to pay off a season of loyal viewership.

Showrunners maintain that character deaths usually are in service to the story. In first-season shows cast with relative unknowns, such as “Heroes” and “Jericho,” that’s almost certainly the case.

Manny Coto, co-executive producer of “24,” said deaths on the veteran drama have never been about the budget.

“Usually the characters being killed off have run their course, storywise,” Mr. Coto said. “It’s reaching for an emotional response out of the audience, and for better or worse, killing a major character accomplishes that.”

The real-time drama embraced killing characters in prime time starting with the shocking death of Jack Bauer’s wife in the first season’s 2002 sweeps finale. Last season, “24” significantly upped the ante by killing four regular characters.

If online rumors, showrunner hints and network loglines are any indication, May is going to be a very bloody month.

Without revealing specific spoilers, a TV Guide report said “Lost,” which is one of the most expensive dramas on television and has experienced a ratings drop this season, soon will chalk up a body count similar to the fabled “24” bloodbath.

“Heroes” showrunner Tim Kring has often stated that at least one cast member won’t survive sweeps. Also on NBC, the renewals of several shows, such as the “Law & Order” franchise, reportedly have been tied to cast and crew budget cuts, which eventually could impact on-air storylines as well.

At CBS, a May press release reveals that somebody will die on both “Jericho” and “Close to Home,” joining “CSI: NY,” “NCIS,” “CSI: Miami” and “Ghost Whisperer” as CBS shows that have killed off series regulars. The online rumor mill contends The CW’s “Smallville” also is planning a major casualty.

“[Deaths are] partly a function of this new style of show where you have a really big ensemble,” said Erin Gough-Wehrenberg, senior VP, current series, NBC Entertainment. “For ‘Heroes,’ it’s definitely to do what’s best for creative storytelling. … [Deaths on other series] were each unique circumstances.”

Yet the most anticipated sweeps stunt isn’t a character’s demise or a catastrophic battle, but the two-hour backdoor pilot for the “Grey’s Anatomy” spin-off starring Kate Walsh, airing May 3.

For decades, the on-screen death of major characters was practically verboten.

When Jean Hagan left “Make Room for Daddy” in 1956, or when Jean Stapleton left “All in the Family” in 1971, their respective characters were simply written out of the show during the off-season. In such cases, the characters died because the actor left the show, rather than due to a showrunner’s creative decision or budget downsizing.

As networks began to program stunts for sweeps, shows would reach for greater narrative twists, the most famous being the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger on “Dallas” in 1980.

But the regular killing of characters, to the point where audiences expect a corpse every season, is a recent phenomenon — at least in prime time.

“[For sweeps stunts] we have progressed from the first kiss, to the big wedding, to bodies all over the stage,” Mr. Brooks said. “But in daytime, soaps have killed off characters for years. You have a shoot-out in the hospital and — voila — some of the highest paid actresses are gone.”