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Is CBS's 'Harper's Island' a New Broadcast Model?

Network Orders Only 13 Episodes to Give Show a Finite Story Arc

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- 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.

One character on 'Harper's Island' will wind up dead each week.
One character on 'Harper's Island' will wind up dead each week. Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge/CBS
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."

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