Dodging Cancellation Bullet, Shows Trim Casts

In a Do-More-With-Less TV Era, TNT's 'Southland' Among Dramas Cutting Number of Main Characters to Survive

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Next season, you might see the characters in "Southland," TNT's critically acclaimed cop drama, yell "Officer needs assistance!" a lot more often.

That's because "Southland" is expected to sport just four regular cast members, compared to the eight -- along with many recurring actors -- featured when it debuted on NBC.

'Southland'
'Southland'

Call it the Case of Doing More With Less.

It's not just "Southland." Many networks are becoming more sensitive to the economics of keeping TV shows on the air. But the show offers a good example to hold up because the popular "Southland" does something other crime series don't. In a world of solve-the-case-in-an-hour procedurals, the series delivers a harrowing look at several Los Angeles police officers and detectives trying to keep the depression and violence that is so much a part of their day jobs from seeping into their private lives, and often failing in the effort. One cop in the drama can't help but become addicted to painkillers; a detective can't get over the guilt of seeing his friend and partner die on the streets during a routine gang roust.

Its scope hearkens back to kingpins of the genre, such as NBC's "Hill Street Blues" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," and ABC's "NYPD Blue." Yet to keep the show on the air, executive producer Christopher Chulack has had to cut personnel and winnow down some of the program's initial ambition.

"I made a promise to myself" when Time Warner's TNT cable network picked up the show "that I was going to try to produce the same show and not let there be any drop-off," he said.

Thanks to its unusual production routine of using real settings -- street corners, buildings, houses -- rather than staged sets, "Southland" finds ways to pare costs. "It has just hit on every cylinder, with producers, directors, acting, crew-wise," Mr. Chulack said. "We all kind of sucked it up."

So, too, have fans this last season: The austerity was one of the factors behind one popular "Southland" character being brutally killed; another leaving the force in disgrace; and other characters who once were seen on screen each week being reduced to having sporadic, low-key appearances.

In another era, a TV network might lavish attention, time and resources on a show like "Southland," even if its finances weren't the best. "Homicide" never got the greatest ratings , but it had a cult following and won many industry awards. NBC kept it on air for six years and even expanded the cast in later seasons, though it was never a hit like, say, "ER" or early seasons of "The West Wing."

But in these days of zig-zagging audiences who often watch their favorite programs in ways that don't lend themselves to producing traditional forms of revenue, TV outlets have learned there's only so much they can do with prestige. These days, Cablevision Systems' AMC is wrangling with "Mad Men" producer Matthew Weiner over the number of characters the much-ballyhooed drama can afford in its fifth season, the launch of which has been delayed until 2012.

Other networks are also minding their financials, though doing so may mean shorting out a program that would win critical plaudits. News Corp.'s FX opted not to run a fourth season of the vaunted legal drama "Damages," letting it drift to DirecTV, even though actress Glenn Close's performance in the show had struck a chord. The network also opted to cancel well-received programs "Terriers" and "Lights Out," despite high marks from critics. To keep the well-received "Friday Night Lights" on the air for multiple seasons, NBC opted to allow DirecTV to air a few seasons of the show first, in exchange for financial support.

'Blue Bloods'
'Blue Bloods' Credit: Jojo Whilden/CBS

Some current shows also appear to be making use of the "Southland" formula. CBS's "Blue Bloods," another cop show, features just five main characters, even though many others appear in every episode from week to week. A CBS spokeswoman for the show did not respond to a query via email.

"Programmers recognize they need more cost flexibility in their approaches to producing shows," said Christopher Vollmer, global leader of Booz & Co.'s media and entertainment practice. "Shows are getting canceled earlier and earlier because of weak ratings and insufficient audience traction."

Indeed, with hour-long dramas costing between $2 million to $3 million an episode, he said, and cable reality series' requiring just $250,000 to $300,000 an episode, TV networks want to make sure a higher-cost program has what it takes to move forward into syndication or robust DVD sales. Fox, for example, had high hopes for an ambitious new drama, "Lone Star," earlier this season, but when meager audiences tuned out its first few episodes, the network pulled the plug on the series rather than face losses.

"Southland" may serve as an emblem of how the TV industry is operating these days, but its story is quite unique. The series debuted on NBC in the spring of 2009 to much critical acclaim. Even as the network grappled with another lackluster prime-time lineup, some critics thought the drama, with its broad ensemble cast, multiple storylines and attention to urban detail, showed the network getting back to the intelligent hour-long dramas that made it a high-flier in the days of "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues."

Their hopes were dashed. In the fall of 2010, NBC said the drama was too "dark" for broadcast TV. TNT, eager to compete with broadcast networks, scooped up "Southland," itself produced by sibling Time Warner unit Warner Brothers. The network had a few changes in mind, said Michael Wright, exec VP and head of programming at TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies.

"I loved this show, but even as a rabid fan of it, I felt in the first season that I was being asked to follow too many stories, and as a viewer, I wanted to invest in three to four primary characters," he said. He also advocated for a much tighter focus on the cops in the show, rather than splitting attention between cops, anti-gang teams and homicide detectives. Those ideas came about "regardless of any need to reduce the budget or make the show leaner," said Mr. Wright. Other Turner executives have acknowledged that the expansive "Southland" had to be reined in a bit if it were to survive on cable, where many programs command lower ad rates than their broadcast counterparts, and where a "season" typically consists of 10 to 13 episodes, not 22.

Mr. Chulack, the producer, also keeps costs down in other ways. He and his staff are producing shorter scripts and filming episodes in fewer days than is the norm. He admits he is fortunate in that the actors playing characters whose screen time is reduced believe in the show and continue to make guest-star appearances. He also thinks the economic strictures force him to make the program more "raw," which only helps the show stand out from other crime-drama fare on screen.

"We kind of get in and out and don't overthink the scenes," he said. "We want spontaneity."

TNT has renewed the show for a fourth season, but more signs of its operating guidelines are clear. At the end of this year's season, one of the detectives opts to return to the blue uniform, setting "Southland" up to be more about beat cops than ever when it returns. Mr. Chulack is open to giving some of the minor characters who once had full starring roles on the show weightier plotlines if they serve the series, or having guest stars, but "I don't right now see us adding any other series regulars."

He doesn't have much to complain about, he said; if TNT hadn't shown interest in the show and its core themes and stories, "Southland" wouldn't be on the air.

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