TV's Business Plan: Keep 'Em Short and Sweet

Writers Strike's Legacy Could Be Fewer Episodes, 365-Day Selling Season

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Broadcast TV was always the place to go for multicourse banquets of programming -- anywhere from 13 to 20 or more weeks of your favorite dramas and comedies. Thanks to the writers strike, however, network TV is looking like a nibbler's delight: eight snackable episodes of "Lost," just a taste of "Terminator."
ABC's hit mystery 'Lost' will return with only eight episodes.
ABC's hit mystery 'Lost' will return with only eight episodes. Credit: Mario Perez

The Writers Guild of America action has forced shorter story arcs on networks and viewers; had writers been available, of course, viewers would be watching a full slate of "24," in which each episode represents one hour in a 24-hour day. A sense is evolving, however, that shorter might be better going forward and that the strike could permanently alter the way TV is programmed and sold.

"A new model that has a continuous season with continuous new programming would benefit all," said Chuck Bachrach, exec VP-director of media communications at independent agency RPA.

Broadcast networks have made obvious moves to lower production costs, switching expensive comedies and dramas with reality shows. Advertisers have clamored for more flexibility when it comes to buying ads on network TV. And viewers have become more impressed with cable series, which often last eight to 13 weeks and come and go at different times of the year than the traditional fall-season start.

Considering alternatives
The past few seasons already have seen the networks experimenting with introducing new series in January and during the summer. NBC's Ben Silverman earlier this month noted his displeasure with the typical network development process for new shows, and told Ad Age he would rather do a two-hour movie of a remake of "Knight Rider" to gauge viewer reaction and order a series up only if it delivers the ratings -- a so-called back-door pilot. He said he also believes such a model makes it easier to find advertising partners for new ventures.

The question is, of course, whether or not networks can break from their longstanding ways of doing business and try something new. The short-order idea has some appeal among entertainment executives, who could freshen their programming slates more readily, and talent, who could fit in more projects. Even so, the idea has significant challenges, such as the difficulty of getting a show with fewer episodes into syndication and the natural fickleness of the TV viewer. Trying to create a "Sopranos," which viewers returned to without fail even though it was off the screen for many months at a time, is "a tough code to crack," said Nicole Romanik, VP-associate media director at media buyer Initiative.

Putting out programs on a continuous basis would swipe a marketing technique used recently by the soda companies. For the past several years, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper/Seven-Up have unveiled "spinoffs" of their mainstay brands, such as Sprite ReMix and Dr Pepper Red Fusion. Many of the flavors flop after sparking initial waves of consumer interest, but the steady beat of product introductions serves the more important purpose of keeping consumers interested in the category overall.

The same technique could work for broadcast networks, though they'll have to work a lot harder to make sure their shows aren't just spinoffs of small-screen mainstays. "If the shows are interesting and they are different enough from each other so it doesn't look like they are putting on the 13th version of 'Lost,' that will keep people's interest," said David Nasser, clinical assistant professor of marketing at Georgia State University.

Convincing execs
Moving to a new model of programming won't be easy, said Bill Hilary, president of Magna Global Entertainment, even though he suspects many network entertainment chiefs might welcome the development. Networks may not want to spend millions of dollars promoting an eight- to 10-show series.

Eight to 10 weeks may not be enough time to establish a program that is a cult favorite, he added, and may not grab advertiser attention like a 13-week series would. Even so, he said, network executives "do seem to want to move to a rolling commissioning model."

The writers strike, which began in early November, already has the industry making contingency plans for how to conduct the annual TV marketplace known as the upfront, when the bulk of TV advertising time is bought. Marketers committed $9.2 billion during last year's upfront sales period.

Several networks this week canceled production deals for their shows, blaming the strike. That move pretty much guarantees they won't have new programming to show off in May, when each network puts on a lavish presentation to tout its upcoming series.

Executives have said they plan instead to hold a series of smaller private meetings with individual agencies and marketers. Such a change might make it easier for the broadcast networks to alter when they introduce new programming and also blow apart the idea of just what constitutes a season of programming.
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