Has TV lost its nerve? Why engrossing dramas keep getting kicked off the island

by Maureen Ryan

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

6 March 2009

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Season Five Premiere
Cast: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway, Elizabeth Mitchell, Michael Emerson, Naveen Andrews, Jorge Garcia, Terry O'Quinn, Yunjin Kim, Jeremy Davies, Nestor Carbonell, Rebecca Mader
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET

US: 21 Jan 2009

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Series Premiere
Cast: Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Olivia Williams, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Dichen Lachman, Amy Acker, Reed Diamond
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET

US: 13 Feb 2009

Launching a broadly successful TV show is possible. No, really, it is.

We hear a lot about the fractured media environment, and most of us - network suits and civilians alike - have accepted the idea that smaller audiences are the new norm. Yet consider “The Mentalist,” the show starring Simon Baker as a sham psychic turned crime investigator. The drama, which bears all the hallmarks of the efficient CBS procedural factory, regularly brings in between 18 million and 20 million viewers.

So are the other broadcast networks - whose overall ratings have declined compared with the previous season - going to unleash dozens of “Mentalist” clones over the next year or so?

Let us now praise episodes of television that don’t require a degree in physics or an encyclopedic memory.

But in the last couple of years, “The Wire” has closed up shop, as have “The Sopranos,” “The Shield” and “Deadwood.” The future of “Friday Night Lights” is in doubt, and in a few weeks, “Battlestar Galactica” ends.

“Mad Men” and “Damages” have ferocious fans but low ratings. And in a few months, NBC - the network that gave us “The West Wing” - is handing over a third of its weekday real estate to Jay Leno, when he moves to 10 p.m. EDT weeknights.

Damon Lindelof, co-creator of “Lost,” isn’t worried. Asked whether a show such as “Lost” could find a home today, he responded, “Yes, I think it would.”

Although the TV writer/producers and executives interviewed for this story were somewhat optimistic about the future for challenging TV, several said there is a new note of cautiousness at the networks.

“What they are reacting to more than anything these days, is to the dwindling ad dollars,” said Tim Kring, creator of “Heroes.” “This has a huge ripple effect on every move they make. And my guess is ... that makes the climate a little more risk-averse than it was a couple of years ago, simply because they can’t afford the number of failures.”

As is the case with the beleaguered music industry, television networks are responding to rapid and revolutionary changes in how audiences consume their products. In the TV industry, that’s having an effect on what gets made.

But, said Matt Cherniss, executive vice president of programming at Fox, “to abandon the desire to tell stories that are, essentially, the hero’s journey and to watch that journey take place - I think that would be irresponsible.”

As Fox attempts to find the next “House,” it’s also trying to cater to fans of Joss Whedon (“Angel,” “Buffy,” “Firefly”), J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Lost”) and Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”), who have created some of the most acclaimed dramas of the new Golden Age.

But when it comes to these writer/producers’ new Fox ventures - “Dollhouse,” “Fringe” and “Virtuality,” respectively - finding the right balance between procedural elements and ambitious storytelling hasn’t been easy.

Last year, the pilot for Whedon’s “Dollhouse” was reshot and production was shut down for a short time so that scripts could be recalibrated. After all that, the ratings for the adventure drama, which debuted Feb. 13, have not been impressive. “We put it on Friday night because we thought that would be the best place for it to grow and allow it to be what it is, rather than trying to shoehorn it into being some other show just to fit a time period,” Cherniss said.

“We have to let it play out and see how it does over the long haul.”

The two-hour pilot for “Virtuality,” which was written by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor of “Battlestar Galactica,” is currently in limbo at Fox. Fox executives screened it in January, then went forward with “Glee,” a soap from “Nip/Tuck’s” Ryan Murphy.

“We’re looking for the best way for the audience to access (‘Virtuality’),” said Cherniss, who added there’s still a chance the space drama could land on Fox’s schedule next year.

“Fringe” has been a modest success for Fox, despite growing pains.

“The hardest thing to calibrate is the serialized element - when you’re getting too inside and too unwelcoming and when you’re being too obvious and playing toward a new audience as opposed to honoring the people who have been watching,” said Jeff Pinkner, executive producer of “Fringe.”

That mix is something that cable networks are having to reconsider as well.

The show that put FX on the map, the densely plotted “Shield,” ended last fall, and the network commissioned two new pilots for possible airing in 2010. “Lights Out,” the story of an ex-boxer in financial trouble, would be a more serialized tale if it gets picked up. An untitled adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story by “Boomtown” creator Graham Yost would feature more stand-alone episodes.

“Our problem - and I think this would be the problem of an AMC or a Showtime or an HBO - we can’t just do case-of-the-week stuff,” FX President John Landgraf said. “We have to make more adult, more original, more idiosyncratic, higher-risk, edgier shows.”

Landgraf added that viewers’ tendency to surf the Web while watching TV was another factor in declining ratings for dense dramas.

“As the experience became a two-screen experience, you started to see the serialized dramas tail off in terms of their ratings potential. I don’t see that changing any time soon,” Landgraf said. “I do think that serialized TV is much harder to succeed at than it was seven or eight years ago.”

ABC is trying to get into the procedural game - it launches the detective series “Castle” March 9 - but it isn’t going to stop trying to find the next “Lost,” according to Jeffrey Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment.

“To launch a show that is completely different from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is hard,” Bader said. “But we will continue to try.”

One reason to try? ABC wants to get more men to watch its shows, which currently skew toward female viewership. And the network sees NBC’s abandonment of the third hour of prime time as a “huge opportunity.”

But one thing is clear: The next big thing probably won’t be a “Mentalist” clone. “History says that probably won’t happen,” Pinkner said. “The next show that comes out will come from a different place.”



Procedural shows: Have stories that wrap up by the end of the hour. Think “Law & Order,” “Cold Case.”

Serialized shows: Have ongoing elements (or “mythologies”) that usually get more complex over time. Think “Lost,” “Alias.”
The emerging hybrid model: Many procedurals mix in a little serialization (i.e., “Red John” plot on “The Mentalist”; “Thirteen” soap opera on “House”), and the goal with most serialized network shows is to give occasional viewers a satisfying story in one episode.

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