Scripted shows stage a dramatic comeback

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Memo to Mark Burnett: Watch your back.

Reality still chokes the broadcast dial. But this TV season is shaping up as the year of the scripted drama, putting producers and creators such as Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives"), J.J. Abrams ("Lost"), Brian Grazer ("24"), Dick Wolf ("Law & Order") and Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI") in the catbird seat.

When the broadcast networks selected pilot pickups last week, they did so secure in the knowledge that September's freshman entries-"Desperate Housewives," and "Lost," along with mid-season launches "Medium," "House" and Numb3rs"- are turning in strong performances. Dramas grabbed 12 of the top 20 ratings spots in the key 18-49 demo for the final week of January, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And viewers are drowning in drama. The genre accounted for 49 hours of the broadcast prime-time schedule, up from 43 hours last year, according to Horizon Media. The new series are winning viewers alongside such workhorses as the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises, "Without A Trace," and "ER."


In addition to producers, the bonanza for scripted programming is good news for advertisers, who sometimes shy away from reality shows because of their unpredictable content. Talent agencies, writers, directors and actors also have a stake in the success of scripted fare.

"'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost' have reinvigorated all of us," said Cori Wellins, a senior TV agent at William Morris. "There are a lot more character-driven shows getting picked up."

Ms. Wellins represents Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner, the team behind "Pros and Cons," a drama just given a green light by ABC. The pilot is from Mr. Abrams, and is described as an "Ocean's 11"-style series. CBS tapped writer-director David Mamet for a pilot called "The Unit" about the lives of special-forces soldiers, and Fox ordered a pilot called "Deviant Behavior" about cops who track serial killers.

Lyle Schwartz, Mediaedge:cia's senior VP-director of national research, said demand for drama is a product of audiences following good shows.

The resurgence of drama could be a setback for branded-content players. Scripted-show producers tend to be more resistant to such tie-ins. ABC's "Desperate Housewives" is practically impenetrable, said one buyer, because the network wants to "keep it pure."

Networks aren't counting out reality. Last week, NBC unveiled a spinoff of the Mark Burnett/Donald Trump show "The Apprentice" that will star Martha Stewart. "People are trying to duplicate the success of ABC [in drama]," said Robert Reisenberg, CEO of Omnicom Group's Full Circle. "You're still going to see reality in the mix."

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