The backlash started with last season's finale, which jacked audience expectations through the roof for an epic showdown. Showrunner Tim Kring promised fans his scripted finale would play "like a $90 million movie," then had characters chatting in an empty plaza. Viewers howled. Later it was reported that Kring was unable to shoot his planned finale due to running into a budget crunch.
This season, "Heroes" has recreated feudal Japan using a Southern California orchard and a few extras in period costumes. EntertainmentWeekly recently bashed the new season for sloppy writing, as well as a "myriad worldwide locales that all look like the backlot of 'M*A*S*H'" and "mediocre special effects." Now the show's spinoff, "Origins," has been cancelled, with some network insiders blaming the pending strike, and observers blaming the flagship show's recent ratings drop.
Likewise, CBS's ratings-challenged "Jericho" earned a renewal earlier this year by building to an epic cliffhanger that had the township going to war with their neighbors. After wrangling a budget for a second season, showrunner Carol Barbee says the story will resume after the battle, with only a few brief flashbacks showing the fight itself. Making a much more cautious reference to theatrical films than Kring, she jokes, "It's not going to be like the opening of 'Saving Private Ryan.'"
Both cases could be dismissed as showrunners being overly ambitious, writing epic stories that outreached their small screen budgets. But there's an argument to be made that there's a larger issue at play, and it parallels the rhetoric coming from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers as the minutes tick closer to a strike.
The AMPTP's refrain is that show budgets are going up and ratings are going down.
But you can add another industry stressor that's less tangible, but equally significant: Audience expectations for the quality of scripted shows keeps increasing. Every time a "24" re-sets the bar for an action drama, or "The Office" for a comedy, or "Grey's Anatomy" for a soap, the creative cost of entertainment rises. And in the case of recent complaints about some of the most ambitious shows on television, the seams are showing as high viewer expectations are bumping up against bottom-line reality.
"The expectations for shows keep getting higher and higher," said one network and studio advocate. "Ratings are going down. Repeats are not working. Last year, the top shows were inexpensive reality shows. If networks put on the dancing bears and that's what people want to watch, then they're going to make dancing bear shows."
It's a point often met with skepticism. While moderating the HRTS luncheon, director Barry Sonnenfeld chided ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson over "Pushing Daisies," saying ABC better keep the budget high enough to hold up the standard set by the pilot Sonnenfeld directed—yet also criticized the network chiefs for not stepping up to pay more during writer contract negotiations. Critics bash NBC for its Nissan Rouge drive-bys on "Heroes" and for stretching "The Office" to an hour, not realizing network is desperately trying to avoiding putting on dancing bears, or keeping Hiro on the backlot or, worst of all, have more NBC Universal layoffs.
That audiences increasingly expect scripted dramas to match the quality of summer movies is hardly a new sentiment, but it's also an even greater challenge than that. Top showrunners feel enormous pressure from fans who expect their writing, week after week, to exceed that of summer tentpole hits. Amazingly, it often does. And when the writers stumble, there are loud online complaints that manifest as ratings drops quicker than ever (such as last season with "Lost" and "24," and this season with "Heroes"). Even as the AMPTP beats their drum about the numbers no longer adding up, they know that there's one aspect that's not expendable in this complex creative and budgetary equation if scripted shows are to thrive: High-quality writing.
So either shows need to be cheaper, stories less ambitious, viewership increased, or the networks need to find new ways to monetize the content.
The AMPTP may be right that a writers strike will be a dangerous blow to the scripted drama business, but writers are correct to place a premium on their services. Either way, the parties seem to lack the same realization: They need each other, more than ever.