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Is CBS’s ‘Harper’s Island’ a New Broadcast Model?

Feb 20, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The central premise of “Harper’s Island” is that each week, a character on the CBS show—which will launch April 9 and run through early July—will be killed. The twist: It’s likely the show will be killed too. CBS has ordered only 13 episodes and asked writers for a finite story arc. From death, however, new life might spring: If the show’s a hit, it could give marketers a model for how to program the dreary summer-reruns season.
Harper's Island
Broadcast networks have long boasted they run original programs year round, but—let’s face it—the offerings typically consist of low-budget reality shows and “burn-offs” of old pilots that weren’t good enough for a second episode. Meanwhile, cable outlets are gaining share by blasting out dramas just as the broadcast schedule winds down. Increasingly, audiences are voting for cable—which means broadcast outlets need to up the ante.
“Harper’s Island” might provide a solution. While the networks have tried in the past to goose their fall schedules by starting some programs in the summer, few try to bring viewers to their summer offerings by launching programs in the spring. CBS’s experiment could open the door to other attempts, said Nina Tassler, president-CBS Entertainment.
‘Proceeding with caution’
Originally, the network opted to start “Harper’s” in April to avoid having it interrupted by broadcasts of the NCAA men’s basketball championship. But now the launch is being watched for possibilities. “Right now, we’re proceeding with caution,” Ms. Tassler said. If “Harper’s Island” is a hit, then “could it be experimented with other series perhaps?” she asked. “It’s certainly something we could look into.”
Media buyers, however, say they would like to see more efforts to draw audiences to what was once thought to be a slower season. “Typically, there’s a huge drop-off from Memorial Day through the Fourth of July. It’s kind of a TV wasteland out there,” said Shelley Watson, senior VP-director of entertainment at independent agency RPA.
“I’m interested to see if viewers will stay with the program through the beginning of July, because it certainly helps those of us who need to advertise in the summer,” including movie studios, she said.
Rather than ceding audiences to cable, CBS’s gambit could stem some of the season’s natural audience erosion, said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of TV research at Publicis Groupe’s Starcom USA. The theory is “maybe we can keep you” as spring turns into summer, he said, “as opposed to expecting you to watch something new when you typically have tuned out” for the season.
Summer not worth much
The big networks have long considered the summer almost worthless. In the medium’s early days, top talent wanted to go on vacation, as did TV executives and the consumers who watched their fare. So networks put C-list substitutes on the airwaves, including such programs as “Meet Your Congress,” said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV.”
“The big time of entertainment was during the winter, and the summer was kind of the secondary period, and so they would fill it with lesser stuff,” he said. That stance has softened in recent years as technology keeps consumers more connected with their jobs and as TV screens have become cheaper and easier to install in nearly any venue.
Like its schedule, “Harper’s Island” isn’t typical. As described by Jon Turteltaub, its executive producer, the program is a scripted drama with a reality-contest twist: A group of friends and family travel to a secluded island for a “destination wedding.” As they start to explore and celebrate, however, a murderer starts killing them off, one by one, and one in each episode. But there are only 13 episodes. The Tiffany Network hasn’t ordered the standard 22—a move that will save money, as well as force producers to focus more intently on the storyline.
Even though the show comprises a mere 13 episodes, CBS is taking steps to get viewers interested weeks in advance—and on the days when “Harper’s Island” isn’t on the air.
Starting March 18, an online counterpart, “Harper’s Globe,” will launch and feature episodes with storylines and characters that complement the TV program. CBS is tapping a unique source for the online component: Eqal, a “social-entertainment company” that is the force behind such online phenomena as Lonelygirl15 and KateModern. And if it catches on, there’s no reason another season couldn’t be drafted that follows a similar premise with a different cast and location.
More of an event
When CBS tested the program with audiences, Mr. Turteltaub said, the network discovered that people grew more enthusiastic about watching it when they realized it had a definite end in sight and wasn’t going to push along for several seasons. “Having to contain it to 13 made it much more manageable. It also made the show much more of an event than the typical full season of TV,” he said. “Normally, all you think to do is tell people when your show premieres. In this case, CBS is also trying to tell people when it ends.”
At a time when the TV business is in the midst of massive shifts in viewership and distribution, networks and producers have to consider new models, said Mr. Turteltaub, who also produced CBS’s cult favorite “Jericho.” “We are trying to be on the forefront of changing formats.”

52 Comments

  1. I’ll be checking out Harper’s Island because it has Jim Beaver in it, but I hate knowing all the characters are going to die. You can’t form emotional attachments to characters if you know they are doomed, or at least I wouldn’t want to. I’d normally ask myself, why bother? I enjoy a story for the beginning, middle, and end. I can appreciate a show with a finite end, but if they are all destined to die that doesn’t sound like it is worth my time and effort. I like to know there is hope and then I really like to know it was realized, that something good came out of watching the show. There are exceptions in movies, such as Ten Little Indians or the exceptional Identity.
    TV has the means to really delve into characterization and story more than movies ever could. Like mini-series of the past, a shortened TV schedule for a show allows you to tell a story grander in scope than a movie, but less than a five-year series.
    As far as the summer being a dead zone, that is because the networks don’t give us anything to watch. With DVRs, DVD recorders and such, even on vacation you can still keep up with favorite programming. Give us something substantial to watch and we will tune in. And reality shows ain’t it!
    I love having 22 episodes of my favorite show, Jim Beaver’s other show, Supernatural, but if given the choice of it leaving the air or being a shortened season like 13 episodes so Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki could also do films then I would gratefully accept the shortened season. And that would still allow them enough time to fully explore a myth-arc each season.
    I think the networks need to rethink their programming. There isn’t just one set way to film a series. Lost and 24 have proven you can shift the start dates and the formats. If the show is compelling enough, the fans will follow it in whatever form it chooses to take.
    I’ll watch Supernatural however I can get it, from a full 22 episode season, to a summer shortened season, to the much anticipated Big Screen movies after it leaves the TV screens.
    B.J.

  2. What’s smart is that CBS is promising viewers that they will get to the point of finding out “who done it” – unlike what they tried with Jericho. Let’s just hope they keep that promise because we all know that when CBS doesn’t get the #1 rating, especially in the 18-49 demo, the show gets whacked. BAM! Done! Over and Out!
    Unless the advertisers decide to count viewers regardless of when or how they watch and forget the skewed demographics, network TV is doomed. Instead of trying to find a “formula” for how and when to air entertainment that will bring in the highest number of one demographic, how about the networks and advertisers work on revamping a flawed system of counting viewers across all platforms and time shifting capabilities. Let’s call it bringing TV into the 21st Century where the viewers have been for years already!
    I thoroughly enjoyed Jericho. It was the first show that got me to the internet. I loved the ARG. I enjoyed the community and the discussion of the “possibilities” of where the show would and could go. And where did CBS take it? Right into the trash heap!
    So while I am eagerly anticipating a complete entertainment package with Harpers Island, I am also leery of having the rug pulled out from under me again. Afterall, I didn’t count last time and nothing has changed now – I don’t count still. There are millions of me but who’s counting?

  3. It’s amazing that this concept has taken so long to reach the U.S.
    The BBC has had finite-length series for almost all of its life, where very few American series have had definite endings – Fox’s 24 being the notable example.
    The only problem is, knowing networks, if the ratings plummet after episode two or three, the rest will only be viewable online. (Remember CBS’ Smith? It too had a defined single-season arc, but got canned about episode five.)

  4. Harper’s Island sounds like a copy cat of a couple of cheap movies I’ve seen, I’ll give it a shot only because Mr.Turtletaub is involved. Jericho was the best CBS has ever done and look what they did with that, I have little faith that CBS will ever get anything right again.

  5. Like beebul, I will check our Harper’s Island only because of John Turtletaub. I have little faith in CBS, in that if it’s not an instant hit, it’ll be gone within a few weeks’ time. They had the best series ever in Jericho, and they didn’t give it a chance to let the audience grow. Since then, I’ve not spend too much time on the network. I’ve been spending my time watching cable series such as Burn Notice and Leverage.

  6. I will watch Harpers Island and a Jericho movie or Season 3!

  7. I may watch it because I like Christopher Gorham, but it’s going to be difficult to watch a show in which you know that most of the characters will die. It’s one thing to watch a slasher film like Friday the 13th, because it’s contained in two hours or less, but for 13 eps?
    However, I suppose the plus side is people betting who will die next.

  8. As mentioned, here in the UK we get one-off’s, 6/8/12 episode runs of shows which get a fraction of the audience of shows like Jericho (Nielsen Ratings).
    Whether Harper’s Island make a broadcast in the UK or not, I will have to wait and see. Heroes has been plugged to high heaven, Jericho buried on a obscure channel with next to no publicity and the glut of cheap programmes ( quiz shows, reality rubbish, etc) is where I switch off my TV. What is required is the well written, well produced, well acted shows that make you think about the premise and the story IMHO.
    I hope CBS follows more of the UK series/season format and produce more good quality shows like Jericho.
    Diggers
    England

  9. I usually don’t like horror/suspence stories, but I will check this out.
    I hope for Junction’s sake that this format works.

  10. I think Harper’s Island sounds intriguing, and I’m looking forward to checking it out. But, like others have mentioned, I am leary of a show put on by a network that has such a poor history of cancelling shows before allowing the audience to grow. Seems like the networks are big believers in “instant gratification” – a shame really, because if that behaviour had prevailed years or even decades ago, there would have been no MASH, no Star Trek, no Cheers etc etc etc… Some shows just need a little time to grow, and unfortunately CBS has proven time and time again that they are not willing to invest time and money in anything that’s not an instant “hit”.

  11. I’ve begun watching tv shows on the internet recently and must say that I like it. I can catch up on all of my fav episodes online now, and have even been branching out to watching ‘indie’ productions. I’m not sure about Harper’s Island though, it seems a little too pre meditated on the networks end. I have found one show that I absolutely love, it’s called Immortal Caesar: Life of a Pro Boxer. I like it because it’s real, honest, and straight forward. If networks could put out show like this, than I would be hooked!

  12. Honestly, I am still scarred by CBS. After Jericho and Moonlight, I can not and will not invest in anything new they put out – even if they are telling me when it is going to end.
    Granted, that is a seemingly nice gesture for those willing to invest their time, but I still do not trust CBS. If the Nielsens are not good enough, they WILL yank it.
    They HAD this new age business model with Jericho, the network did not invest in it.
    I REPEAT – THE NETWORK DID NOT INVEST IN IT.
    Nina Tassler doesn’t understand how to push this concept forward. I don’t see much in the way of change here. I feel sorry for Jon and Junction but no thanks. Not getting burned for a third time.

  13. HI, GET THIS VERY INTERESTING SOUNDING SERIES GOING. SO MANY ARE ALREADY LOOKING FOTWARD TO IT. SICK OF OLD RERUNS WHEN REGULAR PROGRAMS END FOR SEASON.

  14. Saw the first three episodes, didn’t know it moved to Saturday because I wanted to watch all at once so I taped the first three. When I resume watching on Saturday May 23rd, how many will I have missed and is there any way to see them before I begin again to tape on May 23rd?

  15. i can’t remember when a tv show has kept
    my brain so busy trying to figure who is
    the killer on harper’s island, i did think the sheriff was the murder after the girl was found hung and i do think abbey could be wakefield’s daughter. but
    this has been one great murder/mystery
    tv prime time shows i’ve seen in my 43 yrs and all i ask is for more,more,more

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