Break with tradition

Edgy longform fiction chases ratings but not kudos

Every Emmy season, a network’s hope for its longforms temporarily turns toward awards, acclaim and validation for a job well done.

Titles ranging from “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to “Empire Falls” to “The Wool Cap” are touted for their starry casts and important subject matter.

But the real story of the longform business lies outside the handful of prestige projects. As the networks — be they broadcast or cable — chase ratings and the all-important younger demographics, the longform business continues to evolve away from traditional Emmy-bait projects. Many networks are programming fewer original films, while genres like action, horror and sci-fi predominate at others. In the end, there are fewer projects voters will want to elevate with an Emmy nomination.

HBO looks likely to dominate the longform categories once again, even without an “Angels in America” juggernaut, partly because the pay cabler remains dedicated to the historical or substantial dramas — such as “Warm Springs,” “Sometimes in April” and “Lackawanna Blues” — that Emmy voters and critics most admire.

At Showtime, the philosophy is shifting away from original movies. Though the premium pay cabler scored two nominations last year for outstanding television movie (“The Lion in Winter” and “The Reagans”), its Emmy buzz this year surrounds one film, “Our Fathers,” a bold exploration of the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile scandal, starring Christopher Plummer and Ted Danson.

“My philosophy is, I don’t need to make (TV movies) just to fill time, so I shouldn’t. I’d rather spend those resources on another series, something that will have lasting audience value,” says Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt.

Basic cabler A&E is still in the longform game, but has shifted its output in a bid for younger viewers. The network has a solid Emmy reputation, built on historical dramas like “Horatio Hornblower,” last year’s outstanding miniseries nominee. This year, the net has Emmy hopes for John McCain biopic “Faith of My Fathers” and Christopher Reeve-helmed “The Brooke Ellison Story.” But there’s not a costume drama in sight.

A&E is now careful to make sure its longform projects have contemporary relevance. “What people watch, and the way they watch television, has changed in the last few years,” observes Robert DeBitetto, the cabler’s exec VP and general manager.

At broadcast nets NBC and ABC, longform projects are now generally reserved for the all-important sweeps periods. That makes their ability to boost ratings all the more critical.

“This network will never be in the 25-a-year category again, but there will always be room for weapons,” says ABC longform chief Quinn Taylor.

When it came to marketing telefilms “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the Alphabet utilized the same big money, big buzz strategy that turned “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” into this season’s newest hits, says Taylor.

Both entries became two of the season’s highest-rated telepics, and due to the marquee talent involved (Jon Voight in “Five People,” Halle Berry and producer Oprah Winfrey for “Their Eyes”) are likely to draw Emmy notice as well. They were exceptions, though, in a season heavy on quickie projects like “Trump Unauthorized” and campy behind-the-scenes exposes of “Dynasty” and “Mork & Mindy.”

The networks have also begun dabbling in limited series, with high-concept subject matter geared toward younger viewers. Results for the fledgling format been mixed so far. NBC scored a strong start with apocalyptic thriller “Revelations,” which then tapered off to middling results. The format has worked better on cable. Alien abductee saga “The 4400” proved so popular on USA that it will return this summer as a full series. Other limited series eligible for Emmy consideration this year include Sci Fi’s “Five Days to Midnight” and TNT’s terrorist threat actioner “The Grid.”

“We like this form of a limited series,” says Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming at TNT, which is about to unveil the 10-part cowboys and Indians saga “Into the West.” “It’s good for stories that need more than a two-hour movie, but not a five-year commitment. You have this television experience, and then move on.”

“Into the West” is typical of the kind of limited series Emmy voters love — it’s epic, historical and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. But it won’t eligible until next year.

Most limited series are designed as escapist fun, like Lifetime’s upcoming “Beach Girls,” starring Rob Lowe and Julia Ormond. Described as the TV equivalent of a “beach read,” the project targets the cabler’s core female audience, part of a strategy that has led to significant ratings success: The year’s five most-watched original movies on basic cable all aired on Lifetime.

“The audience for TV movies has predominantly been women,” says Trevor Walton, senior VP of original movies for the cabler. “Lifetime has a tradition of making movies. With a scarcity anywhere else, we feel this is our flag we carry into the battlefield.” Emmy voters may write off many Lifetime pics, like “Baby for Sale” and “More Sex & the Single Mom,” as mere “guilty pleasure” viewing, but the cabler does manage to attract awards-level talent. Debra Winger starred in one of Lifetime’s prime Emmy contenders this year, “Dawn Anna,” and Emmy nominee Mariska Hargitay toplined “Plain Truth.”

CBS, perhaps better than any other network, exemplifies the challenge of balancing a longform slate with demo winners and Emmy-friendly projects.

This year at the Eye, titles like “Spring Break Shark Attack” and “Locusts” took their place alongside the traditional quality fare from Hallmark Hall of Fame. It’s a strategy the network plans to employ more of next season.

“On a broad slate, you go for things for different reasons,” says Bela Bajaria, CBS’ senior VP of longform. “As we became more competitive in 18-49 last year, we were able to shift the kind of movies we made.”

Signaling a weakness in old-school longform programming, the net’s much-hyped May miniseries event, “Elvis,” managed a Nielsen showing merely on par with “Shark Attack” and “Locusts,” despite its larger budget and greater creative ambitions.

In the end, kitschy fair like Sci Fi Channel’s “Mansquito,” about a murderous human crossed with a blood-sucking insect, could be a harbinger of where the longform business is heading. It may not be on the top of the “must watch” list for Emmy voters, but it gets the job done, ratings-wise. And for most of the year, the ratings arena is where the longform business lives.

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