Serials get soggy

Nets love dramas with ongoing storylines, but pricey series are a financial risk

The networks will fill their bellies with serials this fall, developing an enormous appetite for shows with open-ended storylines.

But once that heavy serving cools down, webheads may not like the bitter aftertaste.

As execs search for the next “Desperate Housewives” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” the majority of this fall’s frosh dramas (including ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters,” CBS’ “Smith,” Fox’s “Vanished” and NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) are either sudsers or contain storylines that carry over from week to week.

Even procedural dramas are giving into temptation, adding bits of ongoing storylines. Why the frenzy? On the upside, a hit serial can create a bonanza of press attention, marketing ventures and ancillary returns, like DVD and download revenue.

But on the downside, the shows are more expensive for the webs that carry them, upping the stakes should one fail. And undoubtedly some will this coming season.

“There will be a glut,” says Fox’s Preston Beckman, exec VP of strategic program planning. “Just look at the history and play the odds … probably there will be an increase in the amount of failure this year.”

Marc Graboff, president of NBC Universal TV’s West Coast operations, says serialized dramas must jump an even higher hurdle for success.

“There’s nothing worse than a mediocre serialized show,” he says. “It’s a tough business model.”

That’s because even mega-hit serialized skeins see their ratings collapse upon repeat — if they’re repeated at all.

Yet networks have traditionally relied on repeats to make money (since the initial run generally covers the license fee). So those shows must outperform expectations in that one-time airing.

“Unless it does big ratings in the first run, it’s going to be tough for the network to continue,” Graboff says.

“If you can’t spread the cost of these dramas over two runs, you’ve got to find something to replace it in the summer,” Beckman says. “That means more programming costs — and more of a drain on your marketing budget.”

Another strike against the form: Shows with complex, ongoing storylines also boast huge ensemble casts, which in success translates to a hefty payroll.

As for the after-market,serialized dramas rarely perform in syndication as well as shows with episodes that can stand alone.

Networks have faced the quandary before. CBS saw its auds drop dramatically for repeats of megahit sudsers like “Dallas” in the 1980s. The following decade, Fox tried to work around the problem by ordering 30 or more episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” per season, in order to avoid too many low-rated repeats.

The broadcast webs largely got out of the sudser business in the late 1990s. At the same time, execs grew infatuated with the closed-ended format of shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.”

The “Law & Order” franchise, even though it has seen some recent ratings dips, is still the model of how to keep a show alive far beyond the life expectancy of a primetime drama. The “L&O” mothership enters its 17th season this fall, having maintained its basic story structure even with almost constant cast changes.

But then came the rapid-fire success of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” not to mention the ongoing hit status of Fox’s “24.”

The popularity of those shows reminded webheads that, in success, serialized dramas can explode into bigger phenomena than workhorses like “CSI” will ever be. “Lost,” for example, is now a major enterprise encompassing TV, DVD, cell phones, the Internet, broadband and other media.

Fans of serialized dramas are more willing to consume merchandising from their favorite shows, will watch more episodes and are more upscale, according to a network median income study by Magna Global.

The emergence of new platforms has also made it easier to exploit serials to the point that viewers can’t miss an episode.

“In success, even with a short shelf life, you can figure out ways to monetize it in a way that captures the audience past the initial run,” Graboff says. “You can put it on iTunes, video on demand, stream it on your Web site, replay it on the air … just look at Fox’s ’24.’ Their DVD sales are bigger than their foreign sales.”

The growth of such alternative revenue streams is serendipitous, giving studios some cause to be less leery about producing too many serials.

“The fact that there’s less of a syndication back-end is offset by all of the revenues from DVD and other forms,” he says.

Still, television, like history, appears destined to repeat its mistakes. Last year, the rush to air sci-fi skeins (in a misguided attempt to emulate the success of “Lost”) turned up empty. This year, nets are hungry to recapture the thriller aspect of “24” by focusing on one drawn-out storyline — in some cases coming up with another round of similar ideas (i.e., Fox’s “Vanished” and NBC’s “Kidnapped”).

But as they frantically search to find the next “event” program, the nets will likely keep tapping the serial well.

The trend has even spread to comedy, where several new shows (“Big Day,” “30 Rock”) also contain serialized elements — making their syndication prospects dubious.

“Everybody runs to the same side of the ship, and that’s why it keeps sinking,” Beckman warns. “Because of the success of ’24,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Desperate Housewives,’ there’s a very simplistic thinking, ‘Let’s make serials,’ never really trying to understand why those shows worked. Everybody thinks, ‘These things have worked, clearly that’s what we have to do.'”

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