Networks weigh how much to ask of audiences

In a nation of 42 oz. Big Gulps, monster SUVs and space-busting McMansions, it’s probably no surprise viewers are lapping up supersized versions of hit TV shows.

Hungry Man-portioned episodes have popped up all over primetime this fall — and some of the extended versions are even permanent.

NBC has spent the last four weeks airing hourlong editions of “The Office,” while CBS started off the season by expanding “60 Minutes” to fill the 8 p.m. hour. ABC ran 90-minute versions of both “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Bachelor” on Monday nights, accounting for the net’s full 3-hour sked, while NBC bulked up “The Biggest Loser” to 90 minutes as well.

Two-hour editions of “American Idol” will usher in January on Fox, while newsmags like “Dateline” and “20/20″ no doubt will be called upon to deliver two-hour editions as entertainment series falter.

In the short term, those Venti-sized portions post decent ratings. But how much is too much of a good thing — and aren’t these extended episodes really just covering up sked holes?

NBC scheduling prexy Vince Manze says it’s no secret why nets want to expand hit shows.

“Who doesn’t want more of something that’s working?” he says.

Bulking up on hits reduces the amount of time (and coin) nets have to spend on less-successful shows. One of the secrets to Fox’s success has been that the net produces less than 15 hours per week of original fare, far less than the other big nets.

More recently, “Dancing with the Stars” became the first show in recent memory to permanently go to a 90-minute format. “The Biggest Loser” also adopted that length this season. Until those two shows, it had been decades since the nets last regularly scheduled a 90-minute program.

Expect to see even more mega-sized programs if a writers strike cripples the nets’ primetime scripted fare. To fill the gaps left by shut-down productions, webheads could easily expand reality shows (which already have enough footage on the cutting room floor to pad out segs) and newsmags.

But Manze insists supersizing isn’t designed to merely reduce programming commitments.

“That’s just a byproduct,” he says. “You don’t start by saying, ‘Let’s do less.'”

In the case of “The Office,” Manze said the idea of expanding the show grew organically.

“Episodes of the show were consistently coming in long, and I mean 8 or 10 minutes long,” Manze says. Extra material was funny stuff, so NBC execs decided to ask exec producer Greg Daniels last spring if he would want to expand the show on a regular basis.

“Only Greg could really approve it,” Manze says. “And it was planned for just four episodes, that’s it. And if it hadn’t worked after the first one, we wouldn’t have done more.”

Viewers have rewarded NBC for the “Office” supersizing. Skein’s ratings are up 17%, even opposite brutal Thursday competition, and it has improved the time period for the net vs. last year (“Scrubs” and “30 Rock”) by about 50%.

“Of all the moves we made this season, this one has been the most satisfying,” Manze says.

For “The Office” producers, however, it wound up being a difficult process — one they’re not so sure they want to repeat anytime soon.

After all, by airing what could essentially be considered two original episodes a week for four weeks, production on “The Office” is now not as far ahead as the producers would like.

“We’re happy to put (the hourlong shows) behind us,” says one “Office” insider. “It was taxing to do them.”

Also, although most agree “The Office” still reps one of the funniest shows on TV, some critics don’t think the plan worked.

“No matter how you do the math, I think it’s obvious that ‘The Office’ works much better as a half-hour,” Newark Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall recently wrote. “This show’s stories are small-scale by design, and they don’t seem to be stretching out well.”

And even though the numbers are up, there are signs viewers are starting to show fatigue: “The Office” has lost some eyeballs in the second half-hour each week the hourlongs have aired — as either they didn’t know the show was on for an hour, or had had enough of it at some point.

Across town at Fox, program planning/scheduling exec VP Preston Beckman agrees with NBC’s “Office” strategy.

“With all due respect to ‘Scrubs’ (which returns behind ‘The Office’ this week), when you’re in a time period opposite ‘CSI’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ it’s just common sense,” Beckman says. “Expanding ‘The Office’ to an hour the first couple of weeks gives you the best chance to hold on to your audience. It’s just one of the pieces in the scheduling bag of tricks.”

CBS scheduling topper Kelly Kahl agrees that extended versions of hit shows can be a good thing, but for the short term.

“A good way to fill a hole is with a known commodity,” he says. “But if you do it continually, you risk damaging the appeal of the product. It’s hard to do over the long term.”

What’s more, extra-long episodes sometimes feel just like that. Two-hour segs of reality series sometimes come so padded, viewers watching on DVRs usually fast-forward to the last five minutes for the payoff.

Even Manze concedes it’s possible nets could end up annoying auds by giving them too much of their fave shows.

“That’s why we started with just four hourlong episodes of ‘The Office,’ ” he says. “Believe me, there were some voices at NBC that just wanted to go for an hour straight through the season.”

Next up, NBC is expanding its “Heroes” waistline this midseason by airing six extra episodes of a spinoff series. As with “Office,” Manze says “Heroes” creator Tim Kring is fully behind the extra segs.

The current supersizing craze has its roots in a strategy cooked up by then-NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker. Desperate to stop NBC’s bleeding, he decided to ask the producers of hit shows such as “Friends” to add a few more minutes to their episodes.

“Jeff was a pioneer in this, and as with any pioneer, you learn things,” NBC’s Manze says.

What NBC learned was that expanding shows willy-nilly is a bad idea. Viewers get confused if some shows are 42 minutes, while others are 36 minutes.

“When you’re just stretching shows out, it doesn’t work,” he says. “It has to be planned.”

Adds Beckman: “In the case of some of these super-sized comedies, NBC may be stretching it out a little bit.”

This year’s new wave of supersizing is actually more inspired by reality’s success with expanded episodes over the last few years. That trend began with “Survivor’s” all-night finales, and spread to just about every show after Fox started adding hours to “American Idol.”

“Two to three years ago, we had a discussion with the ‘Idol’ producers that we wanted to start the season with a two-hour episode,” Beckman says. “We were told, ‘No way; viewers aren’t going to stay for two hours.’ So we did 90 minutes instead. The following year, we convinced them to do a 2-hour premiere.

“Whether it’s ‘Idol’ or ‘Biggest Loser’ or ‘The Office,’ I think it’s scheduling 101 that if you’ve got a show that people will watch, they’ll hang around to watch an extra hour or half hour,” Beckman adds.

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