NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Every Tuesday at 9 p.m., a group of government-backed investigators helps save the nation from rogue operatives, terrorists or federal employees who go astray for any number of reasons -- all with lots of action and just a touch of humor.
If the question, "Haven't I seen this somewhere before?" echoes in the back of your mind, chances are you might be watching CBS, which seems to be making a concerted effort to maintain sizable audiences for its schedule by building programs with concepts its viewers already find familiar. "NCIS: LA," a West Coast tweak on the original "NCIS" that centers on the premise above, appears to be the most-watched freshman program of the infant 2009-2010 season.
For the week ending Oct. 4, about 17.4 million people watched the program, according to Nielsen; the only drama that topped it was its predecessor, "NCIS," which was the most-watched broadcast show of the week (NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is the only thing that kept the L.A.-centered spin-off from taking second place among viewers, though ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" had a higher household rating than the new show).
Popular with advertisers too
Advertisers like the spin-off, too; according to CBS executives, the program is reaching a "high sellout" in the fourth quarter market for so-called scatter advertising, or ad time purchased closer to air date. Because it fluctuates based on the immediate market, scatter is taken as a good sign of a program's overall popularity with marketers. Recent advertisers on "NCIS: LA" included Home Depot, Wal-Mart Stores and Pfizer's Lipitor. "NCIS" took in around $118 million in advertising during the 2008-2009 season, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Yet the success of "NCIS: LA" illustrates an emerging dilemma for the biggest TV networks in the land: To keep the large audiences that advertisers demand of them, they aren't able to experiment much with new show concepts or quirky ideas. Indeed, the CW's schedule includes three hours a week of revamps of two old Fox hits, "Melrose Place" and "90210." One can make the argument that ABC's new "Flash Forward" serves up the same elements -- mystery, long story arcs, riddles -- that made its soon-to-end "Lost" such a showpiece, and that its new "Modern Family" sitcom steals its documentary-style storytelling from NBC's "The Office."
One might even suggest that the premise for another successful CBS show, "The Good Wife," is ripped from the headlines -- making it something that already resonates with potential fans.
"When you think about the landscape of television today, there are so many choices -- and so many good choices -- how do you give yourself a leg up?" asked David Stapf, president-CBS Television Studios, which produces "NCIS: LA" and the CW's "Melrose" and "90210" updates. "One of the ways to do that is to find ideas and/or titles that are not going to be as challenging from a marketing standpoint," he added.
NBC's abrupt cancellation of gritty police drama "Southland" offers further proof that keeping decidedly unique programs on the air is a tougher feat these days.
When devising "NCIS: LA," CBS deliberately wanted to stick close to what had already worked. "Because 'NCIS' has such a loyal following, you really have to respect the viewer and stay very close to the original brand," said Nina Tassler, president-CBS Entertainment. "Don't deviate from that, especially in your storytelling methods, which we are paying very close attention to."
CBS had mulled the idea of an "NCIS" spin-off on the studio side for at least a season. Some viewers may not realize that the original program is in its seventh season -- often considered long-in-the-tooth in terms of TV-show tenures, but syndication had helped "NCIS" continue to grow its ratings. And, as it would happen, Mr. Stapf said, CBS had a deal with LL Cool J, now one of the stars of "LA," to find programming that might be suited for him. The journey from concept to TV show was quick: Shane Brennan, executive producer of both "NCIS" shows, recalls discussing the idea with Mr. Stapf around September 2008. Mr. Brennan already had some ideas in mind, and was able to pitch a concept to Ms. Tassler by mid-autumn. From there, an ersatz "pilot" episode was introduced during the run of "NCIS" last April.
Taking the cookie-cutter route will only get them so far, executives said. Over time, said Ms. Tassler, the characters will grow and develop, allowing for some degree of originality and creative choice-making. The original show features actor Mark Harmon driving a group of investigators, while the new version is more of a "buddy" show, said Mr. Brennan, with LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell as leads. He likens the concept to the interaction between "Miami Vice's" Crockett and Tubbs or the leads in "Starsky & Hutch." Even so, both programs feature broad teams that include a veteran actor -- David McCallum for "NCIS" and Linda Hunt for "NCIS: LA" -- who offers advice and counsel.
"You can't introduce a new show with new characters and have the audience hold them up in comparison to the characters on 'NCIS,'" said Mr. Brennan, who suggested he wouldn't stand against the development of a third "NCIS" program if there were demand for it. "The trick is to make sure if there is a third one that it has strong characters and once again shines a light on [the concept] that doesn't repeat what [viewers] have already seen on 'NCIS' and 'NCIS: LA'."
Spin-offs aren't new, by any means. ABC's "Private Practice" grew out of "Grey's Anatomy," and the TV landscape has always included many outgrowths of popular TV properties. "Happy Days" begat "Joanie Loves Chachi," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy," while "Friends" gave rise to "Joey." What's new about modern efforts is that their initial launches hinge less on the characters and actors that bring in big crowds and more on the story concept or genre, an approach pioneered by NBC's "Law and Order" franchise, which has grown to include several iterations of the original, one that is still on broadcast ("Law and Order: SVU") and one that's been relegated to cable ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent").
Conventional fare works
With more programming scattered across the set-top box as well as the computer, iPhone and other devices, the thought among ad buyers is that familiar fare does a better job of luring the masses. CBS programs "are very conventional kinds of shows. In times like these, that works," said David Scardino, an entertainment specialist at RPA, an independent agency that includes Honda among its clients. "As a general proposition, I don't think I would have said that three years ago," he added.
Indeed, CBS rivals have found tougher sledding when it comes to launching new programs. ABC's "Flash Forward" attracted around 10.7 million viewers for the week ending Oct. 4, and "Modern Family" nabbed about 9.9 million, according to Nielsen. Fox's "Glee," a wholly original concept that weaves together musical performance and high-school drama, captured only 7.4 million -- though the program has won plaudits and has gained viewers since its debut, a sign that the yearning for comfortable TV could certainly end.
More surprising, perhaps, is the admission that broadcast networks have less room to develop clever, unique concepts that drive buzz and conversation along the lines of AMC's "Mad Men." "You would think some of the creative, some of the juice, has been stifled a little," said Andrew Donchin, director-media investment at Aegis Group's Carat. "Anything that works, you know it's going to be cloned."
CBS, which once lobbed quirkier fare such as "Swingtown," "Viva Laughlin" and "Love Monkey" at viewers, has backed down from that after a spate of cancellations. Still, Ms. Tassler suggested that "The Mentalist" and "The Good Wife" demonstrate that networks can still create wholly original works that have mass appeal.
Of course, creativity has its limits. How many new ideas can the TV networks really come up with? "In all dramatic storytelling from Greek drama to modern day there are only 36 dramatic situations, and, ultimately, at the end of the day, you are going to employ one or several in your storytelling." Ms. Tassler said.
Indeed, now armed with two "NCIS" dramas as well as three hours based on crime-procedural "CSI," CBS is already trying to develop a spin off of "Criminal Minds," executives say. And the network has committed to make a pilot that could revive the old police drama "Hawaii Five-0." Cue the familiar theme music...