|Photo (top): Mark Ben Holzberg|
Action-fueled series: Fox's 'Fringe' (top) and CBS's 'Harper's Island.'
In midseason, CBS expects to roll out "Harper's Island," a program that features one member of a group getting killed off violently each week. Fox has generated a lot of buzz among media buyers about "Fringe," a drama from "Lost" producer J.J. Abrams, set to launch in late summer with a two-hour premiere. And ABC will offer "Life on Mars," a cop show with a fantastic premise: The detective hero of the tale is transported to the early 1970s and must work to prevent his girlfriend's murder sometime in the future.
"When you get a hit with a serialized show, sci-fi or otherwise, you get a real engaged audience and a real loyal audience and hopefully a large, loyal audience," said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at independent agency RPA. "In this time of DVRs, it's an audience that doesn't want to miss a minute."
Intriguing? Maybe not. Viewers tuned out in droves when the networks tried to duplicate "24," another series that demands a substantial viewer investment. Does anyone remember Fox's "Vanished," which focused on a senator's missing wife? Or "Kidnapped," NBC's intense drama about, well, a kidnapped child? The danger with these shows is if the audience doesn't get hooked early, the later episodes have a much harder time drawing new viewers as the plots grow more complicated.
There have been other failures. ABC's "The Nine" ultimately rated zero with viewers. CBS's nuclear drama "Jericho" won critics' plaudits and became a cult favorite -- but it was a bigger hit with web audiences than couch potatoes, so CBS dumped it after a short reprieve. In fact, 75% to 80% of new shows end up getting canceled, which is a good indication of why the networks often try to imitate what's worked, as in all the variations on "CSI" and "Law & Order."
"The success of '24,' 'Heroes' or 'Lost' does not indicate anything about what viewers might respond to next," Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global, wrote in a recent research note. More networks have burnished programs with sci-fi themes in recent seasons, he said, but "the success of 'Grey's Anatomy' does not mean anyone wants another medical show."
There's reason to keep trying. When these complex programs strike a chord, it's a loud one. "Lost" and NBC's "Heroes" have proved they can extend into other media, such as cellphones, fan sites or even trading cards in the case of "Heroes." In 2006, ABC got Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, Monster, Verizon and DaimlerChrysler's Jeep to take part in a viral game involving "Lost" and mobile devices. Nissan Motor Co. has had its products mentioned in blogs "written" by "Heroes" characters.
From a marketer's point of view, "this stuff carries a premium. It has value for us," said Richard Notarianni, executive creative director of media at Havas' Euro RSCG, New York. He said advertisers might prefer to craft a longstanding relationship with audiences who obsess over every minute detail of an unfolding mystery rather than throw something up during "a short-lived series or a random sitcom."