Is the TV Drama Nearing Its Final Act?

Genre Can Draw Upscale Eyeballs but Is Expensive to Produce

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When "Damages" debuted on FX and "Mad Men" premiered on AMC within days of each other in the summer of 2007, the outsize acclaim paid to both programs might have suggested TV was in for a renaissance of sorts in one of its most popular formats, the venerable ad-supported drama.

Now that renaissance is leading to an industrial age.

Economic factors meant no more
Economic factors meant no more Credit: Larry Riley

Economic pressures have begun to intrude on the desire to use high-quality drama to draw new viewers. Citing ratings and economic factors, FX declined to pick up "Damages" for a fourth season, despite noted actress Glenn Close starring in the show in a critically acclaimed performance as a conniving attorney. For similar reasons, FX has also ended its runs of two other well-received dramas, "Terriers" and "Lights Out."

Despite winning near-universal acclaim for airing two seasons of "Men of a Certain Age" -- and significant support for the program from General Motors -- Time Warner 's TNT opted to end the program, citing business factors. Over at AMC, "Mad Men" sends fans into paroxysms of compliments but still has never been TV's most-watched offering, and some of the program's fiscal failings were put on public display this past spring during negotiations between the network, production studio Lionsgate and showrunner Matthew Weiner to keep it on the air. AMC is now in the midst of negotiating over the economics of another top drama, "Breaking Bad," and recently sparked headlines over popular zombie serial "The Walking Dead" when showrunner Frank Darabont left the series, ostensibly over budget squabbles.

Yes, there's a lot of drama surrounding the drama these days.

The shows can create loyal, hardcore followers, the lifeblood of any emerging cable network. But the trappings they carry -- big-name actors, on-location shoots and long, complex narratives -- often mean the programs cost more to produce than other genres, including reality and comedy. And they often don't fare well in repeats, as fans have already seen the stories play out. That means dramas (not to be confused with highly successful "procedurals" that solve a crime, legal case or medical conundrum in 60 minutes' time) don't have as much strength in syndication, an increasingly important factor in determining whether a TV series is the sort of asset that can keep generating revenue for a media concern.

"The back end is where the real money is made," said Brian Hughes, VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global. "Comedy and reality are cheaper to produce and comedies tend to have a better life in syndication."

To be sure, the drama still has life in it -- but perhaps not as much as it once did. AMC is set to launch "Hell on Wheels," a prime-time Western, and NBC will attempt to boost an American-ized version of "Prime Suspect" come fall. Yet the broadcast networks, which run the greatest amount of original TV programming, will mount 42 hours of drama in the new fall season. That's down from 53 last year, according to Magna Global data. NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS have all committed to creating new comedy bastions during the prime-time week, said Mr. Hughes, leaving less room for new drama. What's more, the broadcast outlets appear to be ceding valuable air time to super-sized versions of top reality programs, including two nights a week for Fox's "X Factor" and "American Idol," or two hours each Tuesday for NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

There is room for something new. CBS has had some success with hour-long serials such as "The Good Wife" that attempt to mesh the need for a procedural element -- in this case, a legal case -- with story arcs that run for multiple episodes. And the networks are experimenting with new tricks, including retro-themed dramas such as NBC's "The Playboy Club" and ABC's "Pam Am." There's also a lot of anticipation for Fox's "Terra Nova," a sci-fi epic about time travel and dinosaurs. In a signal that the industry's economics are top of mind, however, Fox has not committed to the series beyond an initial run in the fall, and "Terra Nova" is not slated to appear this spring.

Indeed, there's a greater sense of the risk in trying to be innovative. One of Fox's great drama hopes last season, "Lone Star," was described as a high-concept sudser centered in the high-stakes oil industry, but the program's complexity threw off potential viewers who clamored instead for simpler-minded Monday-night competitors elsewhere on the set-top box. "Lone Star" lasted just two weeks before being canceled.

Even so, the allure of a particularly well-crafted drama remains. Launching a successful one can bring a network the Emmys and Peabodys, as well as the tinge of high-minded arts and letters, that draw the desirable high-income audiences that marketers covet. For cable outlets hoping to emerge from early days of airing repeats of old shows and movies that make viewers think of other networks, an original drama can put a network on the map, as "The Shield" did with FX or "Mad Men" did with AMC.

Perhaps that 's the main function of some dramas in these times. At DirecTV, the fourth season of "Damages" -- which can't be seen anywhere but the company's Audience Network -- is already on air, with actor John Goodman joining Ms. Close in the cast. "We're always looking for exclusive programming to help differentiate us from our competitors," said Paul Guyardo, exec VP-chief sales and marketing officer at DirecTV. "Picking up 'Damages' is part of that strategy."

And, perhaps, part of a new business model.

On DirecTV, "Damages" isn't interrupted by commercials, and DirecTV has no stake in the program's aftermarket sales (Sony is the production partner on the series). Instead, executives at the satellite-TV concern are counting on the program's appeal to high-income, highly educated viewers to make such folk feel more connected to their service. DirecTV used emails and phone calls to reach subscribers who had elected to receive such promotions to alert them to new "Damages" episodes, and also placed ads on its interactive program guides. The results? The first episode of season four of "Damages" reached 1.02 million viewers across four telecasts, a number the company said exceeded its expectations.

"Damages" is DirecTV's first effort with producing wholly original episodes that air only on its service. In the past, the company has run content that aired previously elsewhere or that was created for another network. (DirecTV has run episodes of "Friday Night Lights" before NBC has, for example.) In the future, it might want to invest in more originals, said Mr. Guyardo. "We're talking to working producers all the time."

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