Perhaps TV executives have spent too much time absorbing time-bending plots on “Heroes,” “Lost” and “The Terminator,” but there’s a newfound emphasis on reinventing time to suit their needs — to quote the Rolling Stones: putting time on their side.
These time-squeezing endeavors come in various forms, but each represents a response to challenging aspects of the primetime equation — seeking to achieve the distinct goals of getting new programs sampled, keeping existing ones fresh and mitigating the cost of producing a full slate of them. The categories break down as follows:
- More time. Fox hopes to overcome resistance to new series by halving the commercial inventory within its new dramas “Fringe” and “Dollhouse” throughout their first season, dubbing the gambit “Remote Free TV.”
There is something to be said for expanding actual entertainment content per hour, which has steadily diminished. When “ER” premiered in 1994, producers were allotted 47 minutes and 30 seconds to explore the characters each week. By this season, that total had dipped to just over 43 minutes.
As exec producer John Wells has stated, losing that much storytelling payload — with longer breaks and shorter acts — has to exact a toll on the creative process.
Networks have recognized the advantage of going ad-free or ad-lite in the past, experimenting with limited-interruption premieres, but committing to an entire season in this manner signals a genuine exercise in out-of-the-box thinking.
Bigger portions, to paraphrase an old joke, offer small compensation if the food is terrible. Given viewers’ predisposition to channel surf, a decision to make them less likely to do that, even if it means a bit less dough — sounds like a prudent gamble, doubling down on the network’s investment.
- Less time. The CW network has brought a strategy to primetime that networks have begun employing elsewhere — namely, reducing their programming demands and expense by bailing out on certain time periods.
In CW’s case, that means jettisoning an entire night — Sunday — which the netlet is brokering to an outside supplier. Yet this is hardly a new approach, as networks have already outsourced their Saturday-morning children’s blocks and turned Saturday nights — which are characterized by low viewing levels — into Second-Chance Rerun Theater.
Fewer hours mean fewer opportunities to generate new hits, but they also allow programmers to focus their development and marketing efforts more intently, instead of the scatter-gun mentality exhibited back in the day when broadcasting loomed larger. The real question is whether ABC, CBS and NBC might do the same, shrinking their 22-hour primetime lineups by one of several previously discussed schemes — either parceling chunks out, returning time to stations or more aggressively adopting pay TV’s “We air our shows four times a week” pattern.
In an age of series haves and have-nots — where people can’t get enough of the stuff they like, buying and downloading and time-shifting it — the math on middling shows doesn’t work as neatly as it once did. So don’t be surprised if the old-guard networks pursue addition through subtraction.
- Lost time. If the “Desperate Housewives” season finale is still clogging your TiVo, stop reading here. But the show’s postscript — teasingly jumping five years into the future — marks another stab by serialized dramas to invigorate their plotlines by taking a leap ahead.
The ABC soap might be the most-popular series to undertake this maneuver, but it’s hardly the first. Beyond “Lost’s” flashes back and now forward, “Alias” saw its spy protagonist wake up an amnesiac two years later; “Battlestar Galactica” engineered its own daring twist; and CW’s “One Tree Hill” came back after a four-year interval, allowing its high-school-age cast to reappear after college — with the bonus of putting the actors closer to their actual ages.
With today’s more complicated programs, breaking from the confines of linear storytelling is a logical way to avoid (or escape) a narrative rut, lose extraneous characters and, with any luck, energize the audience.
On the downside, such stunts carry their own “jump the shark” risks, and if there are young kids in the ensemble, well sorry, junior, but consider that a lesson about the ruthlessness of modern television: Not only can you run out of time, but time can run out on you.