Cable drama has its limits

Despite upside, networks are taking a big risk

Its name notwithstanding, a limited series offers plenty of upside. There’s the media benefit of a one-time television event and the potential of programming that can snag viewers — and advertisers — over the long haul.

That explains why networks up and down the cable dial are succumbing to the temptation of limited series this summer — nets as diverse as ESPN, USA, ABC Family and Spike. “It’s a three-for-one deal. If it works, you get a ratings bump, you get media and you get a launchpad for continuing the series,” says USA programming topper Jeff Wachtel.

Or as Turner prexy Steve Koonin succinctly puts it: “It’s a pilot you get to make money on.”

But for every promise the limited series offers, it also poses a pitfall.

The general notion of a short-run series is hardly new, having begun decades ago in the place where all ideas that seem appealing and then become annoyingly ubiquitous come from — England.

In the early 1950s, six-episode sci-fi serial “The Quartermass Experiment” snared viewers with its cleverly imagined, if campily executed, tale of possessed astronauts; in the 1960’s, the BBC’s “The Forsythe Saga” continued the trend with its soapy turns about a family of English businessmen.

Over the years, the broadcast nets have jumped on and off the miniseries wagon. But with the new trend toward limiteds, cable has added a few twists. Limited series are now often spread out over the course of one or two months. And, more important, they’re almost all backdoor pilots.

Ever since USA’s “The 4400” — which was conceived as a one-time, six-episode event when it aired three years ago but became such a hit the net turned it into a series –almost every cable net has toyed with a limited.

There’s plenty of reason for the trend. Many TV creators say they prefer the open-endedness of the medium to the restrictiveness of film.

But consumers feel differently. When storylines have a natural end, viewers tend to tune in; witness the relief that followed when “Lost” set an end-date, or the annual format of a show like “24.” Audiences can sense when writers are vamping.

Then there’s the talent factor. You may not convince theatrical-level stars like Michael Keaton or Steven Spielberg or even Debra Messing to commit to a series for three or four years. But you can steal them for a few months between projects.

And for execs, it makes like more pleasant, if not simpler. “It’s more enjoyable for me. I get to start over fresh each year,” says Spike scripted programming topper Bill McGoldrick.

But nets are also encountering obstacles in the transition from a limited series’ set trajectory to the more meandering arc of a traditional series. USA is struggling to define the post-divorce life of Messing’s character on “The Starter Wife.” (“Can they just make her a detective in Atlanta and call it ‘The Closer Wife?’ ” one wag wonders.)

ESPN’s conceit of a year-in-the-life of the Yankees (1977) in “The Bronx Is Burning” may offer the lure of franchisability. But imagine the viewer fatigue if the net tried to re-create the 1978 Yankee season, or moved it to another city (“Wrigley Is Reeling?”). (Execs say that while they’re contemplating other limited series structured around a season, they’re not considering extending “Burning.”)

Viewers also demand a pacing that can be hard to sustain in an ongoing skein. “The biggest challenge with a limited series is that having launched with such impact, you need to accelerate the storytelling. There’s a different audience expectation,” USA’s Wachtel says.

And attracting big talent is nice, but does a net squander points with auds if it can’t hold on to it?

The definition of the limited seems to be getting overly flexible. Spike’s eight-episode “The Kill Point,” about an in-progress bank heist, is dubbed a limited, but with a protag facing a major crisis during the season, it’s rhythms aren’t not much different from, say, “24.”

If the ratings are strong enough — the 2 million average viewers so far suggest it’s on the bubble — Spike will renew the show and simply give Donnie Wahlberg’s character a different hostage crisis to negotiate. If the ratings don’t measure up, Spike can just say it never meant for the show to go a second season.

In a sense, then, the limited is less a distinct form than just another means of managing expectations in an era of high standards on cable.

The trend reps the very au courant trend of the featurization of cable — not just because of the talent but because the form tends to have a streamlined plot, one director and one set of writers.

Execs say that having spread across cable, the next step could be for the form to compress further, becoming a theatrical-type one-off event.

In other words, the limited may not be around forever.

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