TV peers into hourglass–and blinks

In a typical week in January, the national prime-time Nielsen Top 30 ratings included 14 situation comedies; four news shows; four reality programs; three movies; one variety reunion; and, count ’em, four hour-long dramas: “Murder, She Wrote,””Northern Exposure,””Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

Languishing in the bottom half of the 97-show ratings were such highly praised series as “Picket Fences”; “Civil Wars”; “Going to Extremes”; “Reasonable Dou-bts”; “Quantum Leap,” and the show with the title that may sum up the current state of the hour-long drama–“I’ll Fly Away.”

Is the hour-long drama dead?

“To me, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy,” declares veteran producer David Jacobs (“Dallas,””Knots Landing”), who has twoshows, “Homefront” and “Bodiesof Evidence,” waiting to return tothe air in an attempt to find an audience.

It’s no secret, he says, that hour-long shows are more expensive to produce than half-hours, minute by minute, and at the moment they don’t syndicate well. That means profit must come from foreign sales and they take longer to develop.

“In the climate that exists in the United States, not just in the entertainment business, profit margins are measured quarterly, not over long periods of time,” Jacobs says.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a show that didn’t show a profit in the end, but companies don’t want to deficit-finance the way they used to. In a way, they’re making it harder and harder for us to do hours,” he says.

Hour-long shows produced directly for syndication, however, appear to be thriving. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is a long-running hit and it’s now beenjoined by “Star Trek: Deep SpaceNine.” There’s also “Baywatch;””Highlander;””Renegade;””TimeTrax;””Kung Fu-The Leg-end Continues;” and others.

Again, it’s a question of money.

“The economics of the hour show have made it very difficult for networks to do the kind of shows that we do in syndication,” says Michael Piller, co-executive producer of the two “Star Trek”shows.

“Because we have support at the back-end from stations before we begin, all of the costs involved in mounting productions like these are taken care of,” he says.

Piller believes that the business of producing shows for the networks is going to have to evolve in a new direction.

“Look at projects that have worked,” he says. “Usually they’re the shows that break the mold to some degree; that offer alternatives to what’s already on TV; that do not repeat old formulas.”

Formerly with CBS-TV, Piller says he knows how the networks go about testing shows and he suggests that they are still comfortable with what they know.

“The testing reinforces that mis-assumption,” he says, “because when you have an action show that seems very much like ‘Simon & Simon,’ say, or a cop show that follows familiar formats, something the audience is familiar with, generally the testing will be higher.”

Therefore, as a rule, shows developed by networks seem to evolve into traditional forms. “More chances have to be taken,” Piller says. “Conceptual development and the execution of those ideas have to be improved for the hour form to be revitalized.”

Not everybody is depressed about the state of hour-long dramas. “I don’t think the hour form is dead,” declares Dick Wolf, executive producer of “Law & Order” and the upcoming “Crime & Punishment.””As a matter of fact, I think there are some better hour shows on now than have been on in a long time.”

He points to “Northern Exposure,””I’ll Fly Away,” and “Quantum Leap.”

“There is always hope that the next one is just around the corner,” he says. “I don’t see any diminution in the strength of the good shows. Everybody talks about the ‘golden age of TV,’ but I don’t know when that was. Ten years ago, yes , you had ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘St. Elsewhere.’ But name three other great dramas that were on then.”

Wolf does not believe the problem is that the public won’t accept hour-long dramas, not that advertisers won’t support them. He agrees that the biggest concern is financial in the current financial environment.

“They are very expensive and it almost gets to the point that as a rational business decision, it doesn’t make sense for the studios,” he says. “It’s a leap of faith on their part that the market is going to come back, and I think it is.”

Wolf points to the aging, hour-long, off-network shows now in syndication, such as “Magnum, P.I.” and “Hunter.”

“Hopefully, when “Law &Order” is ready to move into the syndication market next year, or the year after, I think the audience will be ready for some new hour shows in those afternoon time slots on independent stations,” he says. “If you’ve been following the numbers, syndication prices have been inching back up.”

One good sign is that producers say the networks are more likely to give a show time to find its audience now.

“I think they’ve settled down slightly from where they were two or three years ago,” says Barry Kemp (“Coach,””Delta”). “It was a scary time from the standpoint that you honestly had two or three weeks to make it or not.”

A decade ago, the situation comedy was declared dead until a man named Bill Cosby came along and changed the rules. Sitcoms exploded and now, as the cycle comes around, some producers say their days are numbered.

“I think you’ve got another couple of years of the sitcom,” says Matt Williams, co-executive producer of runaway hit “Home Improvement.”

“I think that within the next 24 or 48 months, people are really going to start looking for family hours, solid hours of television that the whole family can watch. Hours tend to be shoot ’em up cops and adventure. Rarely are hours developed about the people who watch TV, embrace their problems, their issues,” Williams says.

David Jacobs has the same notion. “I think everybody kind of agrees that the next big hit in TV is going to be a one-hour show,” he says. “There are just so many half-hours, you can’t tell them apart. In the one-hour show, at least you’ve seen some innovations, people trying to do something different, trying to define the medium.”

Michael Piller believes he has the answer. “My instinct is that weshould be looking for the grandadventure,” he says.

“I don’t know what form it will take, but I don’t think just science-fiction is what’s going to work. If you can find ways of doing adventure, colorful and, I put this in quotation marks, ‘costume’ drama in away that is challenging and tho-ughtful television, I think that might be what’s on the horizon.”

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