By Brian Steinberg
The TV grid has long been littered with "ampersand shows," programs that focus on team-ups of two disparate personalities who have one thing in common: doing good. And while the world may or may not recall the justice meted out by "Starsky & Hutch," "Tenspeed & Brown Shoe" or even "Tequila & Bonetti" (a cop and his talking dog), the industry could have reason to recall a program like TNT’s "Rizzoli & Isles."
The female-focused cop show, which stars Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, respectively, as a flinty Boston police detective and a quirky-but-elegant medical examiner who use their friendship to solve crime — as well as life’s little challenges — is widely being seen as a breakout hit this summer, even though reviews have been somewhat tepid. "Rizzoli & Isles" "is clearly more about character than plot," said the Los Angeles Times, while Michigan’s Kalamazoo Gazette deemed it a "formulaic show without much of a pulse."
Even so, the ratings are impressive for a scripted summer series. "Rizzoli & Isles" has notched a live-plus-same-day audience of between 6.5 million and 7.5 million in its five outings on Time Warner’s TNT, according to Nielsen. Those figures trump most other cable offerings this summer, including HBO’s "Entourage," MTV’s "Jersey Shore" and USA’s "Covert Affairs."
The "Rizzoli" ratings don’t come close to matching the nearly 25 million people who flock to an episode of Fox’s "American Idol," but as more broadcast-network programs see viewership fall in the 6 million to 10 million viewer-range (ABC’s "Modern Family," widely considered a hit, has notched only an average of 8.5 million viewers for the season through Aug. 8, Nielsen said), a by-the-numbers drama on the order of "Rizzoli & Isles" could spell the difference between success and failure for TV outlets hoping to delve more seriously into scripted fare. TNT has already renewed the program for a second season.
"You always have a couple of ‘buzz’ shows, but it’s the meat-and-potatoes stuff" that’s becoming more important, said Ira Berger, director-national broadcast at Dallas independent Richards Group.
Indeed, a program like "Rizzoli & Isles" could prove more solid than critically acclaimed efforts such as AMC’s "Mad Men" or cult favorites such as the CW’s "Gossip Girl," each of which typically draws around 2 million or less for an original TV airing. As more TV fans use computer screens or portable digital devices to scan their shows, audiences for each airing of a program are bound to dwindle. Sometimes, the numbers some ballyhooed programs attract aren’t sustainable — one reason why "Damages," a well-heeled drama starring Glenn Close, is moving from FX to DirecTV.
While cult favorites "have a little bit more of a problem finding" a broad audience, said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at Santa Monica, Calif., independent RPA, a program like "Rizzoli & Isles" is more reliable. The show is not "intellectually taxing" but stands as a "neat entertainment" that is more viable in a difficult media economy.
Success isn’t guaranteed. Cable shows tend not to hold audiences for commercials as well as broadcast programs, Mr. Scardino said. And ad buyers say TNT has had issues in the past in trying to devise a show that follows its veteran hit "The Closer" and keeps steady ratings week after week. The network garnered some buzz with "Saving Grace," but moved the air date, and the show lost some of its "Closer" lead-in. The network followed next with a legal drama, "Raising the Bar," that generated big buzz initially, only to see its viewership fall.
Executives at Turner say they knew immediately upon seeing a "Rizzoli" pilot last year that they had a show that could be a companion to "The Closer." "If you’re a ‘Closer’ fan, it’s a pretty accessible show, but it has its own voice," said Michael Wright, exec VP and head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. Both programs feature strong female leads who must reconcile personality quirks with the process of crime solving.
With confidence in the show and its casting high in early 2010, Turner’s ad-sales team went about securing longer-term sponsorships, said Linda Yaccarino, exec VP and chief operating officer, Turner Entertainment ad sales, marketing and acquisitions. Chrysler, Vonage and MillerCoors’s MGD 64 have all taken a longer-term interest in the program. This week, for example, rough-and-tumble Rizzoli persuades standoffish Isles to forsake red wine and try beer for the first time. "This is delicious!" crows Isles. The two are drinking from Miller bottles.
Turner isn’t solely in the business of coming up with middlebrow police procedurals. TNT is expected to air a second season of "Men of a Certain Age," a critically acclaimed series featuring Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, as well as "Southland," a dark police drama that was jettisoned by NBC. But Mr. Wright suggested a network has to devise a portfolio of programming that is financially sound, and can’t simply run shows just to please critics.