The recent NBC hoopla over the 100th episode of “L.A. Law” put a brave face on a grim reality: The hourlong drama, which has given tv much of its best – and most profitable – programming, is a dying format.

“L.A. Law,” now in its fifth season, is the last hour show to score with a mass audience. The genre, which traditionally has told the most ambitious stories, attracted the most talented writers and launched many of our most promising directors, is no longer reaching a broad-based viewership.

Hour dramas are being squeezed out by escalating costs, low syndication revenues and competition from cheaper hourlong newsmagazine and reality shows.

Just six years ago, eight of the 10 highest-rated network primetime shows – from “Dallas” to “Cagney & Lacey” – were hour dramas. But the sitcom already was making its presence felt: Two years later, five of the top 10 were half-hour series. Last year, no dramatic series were in the top 10.

Since 1980, only 3% of the hour series that made it onto the nets, at least in pilot form, have managed to strongarm their way through to the 100-episode mark, according to a Kagan Associates survey.

The solution to the hourlong dilemma doesn’t lie in cable: Because of their limited audience, the cable networks can’t pay the minimum production cost of $1 million an episode.

“Under current market conditions,” said Rich Frank, president of motion pictures and tv for the Walt Disney Studios, in an open letter released earlier this month, “even if a new hour show is consistently No. 1 in the ratings, it will simply never get out of red ink.”

Disney’s Touchstone TV arm stopped producing hour series for network primetime several months ago.

“It’d be an awfully dreary world if the networks scheduled nothing but wall-to-wall comedies and reality programs,” says Grant Tinker, head of production house GTG and veteran of such MTM hour dramas as “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” He calls the one-hour drama “an endangered species [ because] the deficits have become so unmanageable.”

‘ Not a good business right now*

The filming of hourlong dramatic series “is not a good business to be in right now,” adds Harvey Shepherd, head of network production for Warner Bros. TV.

John Pike, head of network production for Paramount Television, says, “We’ll walk away from a deal for an hour series that would cost us a million three or a million four an episode to put on film [ because we're being offered only] the standard $850,000 an hour in license fees from the network.”

Even if a studio produces a 60-minute network show that goes beyond 100 hours, Shepherd says so little money is garnered from domestic syndication or basic cable that the company will end up taking a big loss on the deficits incurred during the production cycle.

“We couldn’t even syndicate a hit show like ‘L.A. Law’ to stations,” adds Harris Katleman, head of network production for Twentieth Television. After determining that tv stations would not be interested in buying “L.A. Law” reruns in off-net syndication, Twentieth was forced to sell them to the Lifetime basic cable network for less than $300,000 an episode, according to various sources.

Twentieth Television passed on a network commission for an hour action series that, despite a projected cost of $1.8 million an episode to produce, would have fetched only $900,000 an hour from the network in license fees, according to Katleman.

Katleman says foreign syndication of the rejected series would have funneled a maximum gross figure of only $300,000 an hour to Twentieth, or about $220,000 after deduction of various expenses. So just to cover the deficit, the company would need to net more than $600,000 an hour domestically, a totally unrealistic goal.

In line with these new economic realities, Katleman says that, of the 15 series projects Twentieth has in development at all four nets, only three fall into the dramatic-hour category.

The irony to Paramount’s Pike is that the hour shows with the most manageable deficits are often the ones with the least sales potential in foreign markets. He compares the contemporary CBS drama “Sons & Daughters,” which is so steeped in American culture that it’s having problems abroad, with another Paramount hour, the long running action series “MacGyver.”

Another series “that isn’t expected to travel well in foreign countries,” adds Tinker, is his company’s “WIOU,” a behind-the-scenes drama of a tv news department. “People don’t get shot every week and women aren’t jumping in and out of bathing suits.”

Hour dramas also are being victimized by the shrinking number of time periods allotted to them by the networks.

‘Harder and harder to get on air’

“It’s becoming harder and harder to get these shows on the air,” says Les Moonves, president of Lorimar TV. “For example, of all the pitches made to ABC for new series last year, 60 went to script, 14 of those went to pilot production and only two new hours ended up on the schedule, ‘Gabriel’s Fire’ and ‘Cop Rock.’ ” ABC already has canceled “Cop Rock” and Lorimar’s “Gabriel’s Fire” flickers unsteadily in its Thursdays at 9 p.m. time period.

One of the reasons for the disappearing time periods is that the nets are discovering how cheap it is to seed their primetime schedules with hourlong news magazine shows and reality programs.

“Reality shows like ‘Rescue 911′, ‘America’s Most Wanted’ and ‘Cops’ try to take advantage of the immediacy of the television medium,” says Alan Wurtzel, v.p., marketing, research services, ABC. “They try to combine elements of a live, breaking news event with the structure of a drama.”

“Some of these reality shows are matching the ratings of the far-more expensive dramatic shows,” says David Poltrack, sr. v.p., planning and research, CBS. “The viewers don’t differentiate,” he notes, between dramatic hours that cost more than $1 million an episode and reality or news hours that cost in the $500,000 range.

Hour series scheduled at 8 p.m., Poltrack adds, tend to skew older because they invariably go up against two sitcoms that already carve out a huge slice of young adult viewers. Most advertisers hate shows that appeal mainly to older people and will buy them only at bargain-basement prices.

In theory, hours can attract coveted younger viewers, but there’s a Catch-22: “When we push the content limits to be competitive with the more liberal standards set by cable,” Poltrack says, “the advertisers are quick to bail out.” Provocative, controversial shows bring in young viewers, but advertiser walkouts keep the networks from turning the demo ratings into healthy profits.

ABC’s Wurtzel says that advertisers “simply don’t understand that audiences for shows like ‘thirtysomething’ are sophisticated and hip – they’re not going to be offended” by provocative themes.

But Betsy Frank, senior v.p. of Saatchi & Saatchi, says she thinks these alarm-soundings are overstated. “This season, only one hour show ended up with significant advertiser problems – ‘D.E. A.’,” the hard-action cop show laced with documentary film techniques, which Fox already has canceled.

She mentions “L.A. Law,” “thirtysomething” and “Law & Order” as series that “may have had some periodic questions about content,” but adds, “it’s wrong to conclude that a network can’t do good drama because of advertiser problems.”

Meanwhile, 9 p.m. mirrors 8 p.m. in that successful sitcoms also siphon off most of the available pool of young adults.

10 p.m.’s a tough time

At 10 p.m., “hours are getting tougher and tougher to program,” says Poltrack, “because on certain nights you’re getting bridged by a movie so you’re only as good as your lead-in.” (All of the network movies start at 9 p.m. except for Fox’ irregularly scheduled mix of theatrical and tv movies on Mondays at 8 p.m.)

The Big Three networks “put all of their young-adult dramas at 10,” Poltrack says. But for the most part these shows are not succeeding because “young people are by nature very fickle and the environment has become so crowded” with strong independent-station newscasts, better programmed paycable and basic cable networks and stacks of prerecorded videocassettes in the 70.2% of American households that now own VCRs.

So far, none of the major studios have followed Disney’s lead in renouncing all future production of hourlong dramas.

Warner Bros.’ Shepherd says: “I’m going to stay in the hourlong business in the hope that someday things will change – there’s always the chance for a breakthrough.”

“The business is so cyclical,” adds Lorimar’s Moonves, “that I’m confident the hour form will make a comeback.”

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