HOLLYWOOD — The spread of news shows on primetime TV is the latest bad news for producers of longform TV dramas. Expensive one-hour series, telepics and minis have been a tough sell for a few years. But with network news anchors in New York commanding multimillion-dollar annual salaries and expanded air time, the West Coast creative community is wondering if there’s anything left — in the till or on the schedule — for drama production.
“You look around at what’s going on with the proliferation of newsmagazines, the downward pressure on license fees, and you just have to wonder if the networks are in danger of putting a spike through the heart of the production community,” says Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. TV. “The available slots are already slim and every indication is next season there will be less of them.”
That comes as a dire warning from Moonves, the so-called “Mayor of Primetime, ” who houses such A-list drama and telepic producers on his lot as “Northern Exposure” creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, Robert Singer and Thomas Carter.
“The number of producers operating in longform has dwindled dramatically,” says Larry Strichman, exec VP at RHI Entertainment and former head of the longform department at CBS. “There were probably 400 people in the movie-of-the-week business full-time six or seven years ago, when I was at CBS. Now there’s probably 150.”
ABC is about to pare its available primetime slots, preferring newsmags in the 10 p.m. slot instead. In the effort to keep its stable of news superstars — Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Peter Jennings — rich and busy, the web has handed over another prime slot, the 10 p.m. Wednesday hour after “Home Improvement” and “Grace Under Fire,” to the news division’s “Turning Point.” The Alphabet web’s news obsession has even triggered a clause in Stephen Bochco’s contract that allows him to shop his next “NYPD Blue” to a rival network after ABC has had a first look.
The loss of that hour to the news division has fostered uneasiness in the production community, exacerbated when the network halved the number of drama pilots it ordered this season. And the move has widened a gulf between ABC’s East and West Coast factions, with a sense that the entertainment division is under siege from news.
The longform division hasn’t helped its own cause either, with disastrous miniseries performances during the November and February sweeps such as “JFK: Reckless Youth” and “Heaven and Hell”: Both crashed and burned in the Nielsens.
But ABC is hardly alone in causing palpitations among those in the production community. NBC is also mulling a 10 p.m. newsmag strategy, and all the webs have cut their development budget — including CBS, which buys more telepics and miniseries than anyone else.
“I remember five or six years ago, there was development money for four times the projects that would get on the air,” says a CBS insider. “Now, the ratio is more like one to one. With so little development money floating around, it makes it next to impossible for the little guy.”
If shrinking dollars and time periods weren’t bad enough, there’s the constant pressure from Washington and Madison Avenue over TV sex and violence — another headache for longform producers.
“I can’t begin to say how much trouble this is causing for our clients working in dramas and made-for-TV movies,” says the chief of the TV department of a major agency. “The networks are going over everything with a fine tooth comb. A script where a guy gets shot in the arm and there’s blood becomes a guy is shot and we see him wearing a band aid.”
While the Big Three micro-manage their suppliers and reduce orders, there is growth in other areas. Fox Broadcasting, cable networks such as TNT and USA, and first-run syndication are all buying more longform and dramas. Even ABC is planning to schedule original family movies in primetime on Saturday next fall.
The bad news, however, is that the bulk of the growth areas involves players who are looking to license product on the cheap, cutting further into profit margins for already-strapped longform producers.
“The licensing money that some of the non-network guys want to pay is a lot less then we’re used to,” says one studio chief. “And even ABC, with these kids’ movies, wants to only pay a licensing fee of about $ 1.8 million — that’s significantly less than we’re used to. They justify it by saying just go make remake movies like ‘The Parent Trap,’ and save the development and script costs. That’s fine if you’re Disney, but where does than leave everyone else?”
Some industry observers think that the networks are on the verge of a newsmagazine glut and that the squeeze on longform won’t last.
Diluting the franchise?
Meanwhile, some Alphabet web honchos are wondering if their network may be diluting its franchise for short-term profits.
“We’ve made our case that there’s such a thing as too much news,” says a West Coast ABC exec. “The numbers were put on the table. News magazines against news magazines eat each other’s lunch. They get lower advertising rates. You have to do more original episodes, so you end up asking, ‘Is it really cost effective?’ ”
It’s conceivable now, for example, that producer Steven Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” could be the only 10 p.m. drama on ABC next season from Monday through Friday, surrounded by newsmagazines.
The terms of Bochco’s deal have changed, removing certain obstacles to his ability to take a project elsewhere should ABC pass on it. Those parameters were built into the original 10-series deal but have become particularly significant because of the apparent shortage of drama openings on the ABC roster.
“I guess it’s better than everyone else having a drama and me not,” Bochco quipped, while acknowledging that these are dark days for those who are in the 10 p.m. drama business –“Which I am, and it looks like they (ABC) are not.”