Vet producer brings 'Raising the Bar' to cable

TNT, fed up with playing second-class citizen while broadcasters rake in much bigger bucks from Madison Avenue, has begun hijacking A-list producer-showrunners.

And no one is higher on that list than Steven Bochco. Over the last three decades, Bochco has exec-produced such TV classics as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” His new effort for TNT, “Raising the Bar,” focuses on a group of young attorneys trying, as he puts it, “to function on a daily basis within a dysfunctional criminal justice system.”

Until the last couple of years, Bochco would’ve automatically taken any new series ideas like “Raising the Bar” to the broadcast networks. But, as he put it in a interview, “Broadcast TV is not doing these kinds of shows any more. I would’ve wasted my time,” Bochco said, adding that he was happy there are “so many other good places” interested in his work.

Indeed, cable TV has proven a ready buyer for producer. FX commissioned Bochco’s “Over There” in 2005, a series dealing with the Iraq War on the battlefield and on the home front. But the psychic wounds of that ongoing conflict may have appeared too raw to auds; the series lasted only one season. Bochco has had recent projects with HBO and A&E — and another one at FX — but he’s now giving all of his attention to “Raising the Bar,” which premieres Sept. 1. TNT has ordered 10 episodes of the show.

While more producers like Bochco gravitate to cable, broadcasters are saving money on their primetime schedules these days by commissioning more talent shows, reality shows and gameshows, which are scarfing up time periods previously reserved for scripted series.

One problem for TNT is that, although some of their shows may be cheap, the broadcast nets still pull in more cash for each 30-second primetime spot, on average, than even the highest-rated cable net. Broadcast networks can be seen in 99% of U.S. homes, compared with about 86% for even the most widely circulated cable channel, which can reach people hooked up to either cable or satellite only.

TNT’s long-range strategy is to use scripted shows by respected producers like Bochco to attract more young, upscale viewers, which would allow the network to charge advertisers premium rates. (By 2010, TNT plans to have six scripted original series on its primetime schedule, two each day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.)

But right now, TNT can afford a license fee of only $1.3 million an episode, which Bochco says is “much less than I’d get from a broadcast network.”

Although Bochco is an independent producer who’s not affiliated with any of the majors, he’s doing “Raising the Bar” for ABC Studios, and everyone on the show, he says, “is taking big pay cuts.”

To keep the cost of each episode at $2 million (compared with an average of about $2.5 million for a broadcast scripted drama), Bochco says, “Even though the show takes place in New York, we’ve never set foot in the city.” The quick montage of New York scenes that open each episode comes from stock footage gussied up with optical effects.

Bochco has recreated the offices of the district attorney and the public defender — and the courtrooms where they ply their trade — in a Hollywood studio.

And instead of the usual eight-day shoot for an episode of a one-hour series on broadcast TV, Bochco says he has to put together a “Raising the Bar” hour in seven days.

And there’s no guarantee Bochco will end up rolling in dough if “Raising the Bar” becomes a hit. Spoiled by the king’s-ransom payouts from rerun sale of his broadcast hits to cable networks, TV stations and from boxed DVD sets, Bochco says that a bleak new reality is setting in. As he puts it: “The whole aftermarket business model is in flux. No one has a good idea where it’s going.”

Except for “The Sopranos,” whose repeats scored a humongous $2.5 million an hour from A&E, no hit drama coming off a cable network has fetched big bucks in reruns. TNT has encouraged Warner Bros. Domestic to find another cable buyer for the reruns of “The Closer,” which continues to pile up record total-viewer ratings on TNT. But no buyer has yet surfaced, which could mean that “Closer” reruns will end up by default on TNT, for modest license fees.

One of the ways Bochco has tried to make it easier for Disney-ABC Domestic TV to eventually sell reruns of “Raising the Bar” is by steering clear of the stigma of serialization. The two legal cases in each episode will be resolved at the end of the hour, he says. Self-contained dramas like “Law & Order” and “CSI” and all of their spinoffs fare well in reruns precisely because everything gets wrapped up by the final credits.

Courtroom series featuring cases that spill over into multiple episodes are not high on anybody’s rerun-buy list. The concern is that viewers of the rerun who come in on the middle of a story arc will be left in the dark, and switch to another channel.

“Closing the Bar” won’t be entirely self-contained, however. Bochco says the series will explore the personal lives of the main characters played by Mark Paul Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek, Gloria Reuben and Melissa Sagemiller. But Bochco adds that the writers will include a line or two of dialogue — classic exposition — to clarify any backstory.

Bob Thompson, author and professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse U., says the irony is that the rerun marketplace is discouraging complicated, multifaceted storytelling — in series like “Six Feet Under,” “24” and “Lost” — that often requires lots of time to capture the essence of a character and the working out of detailed plotlines.

“Many of the shows that critics and intellectuals embrace,” Thompson says, “are considered suspect in the business because you can’t make a killing with them in rerun syndication.”

But TNT programming chief Michael Wright, who commissioned “Raising the Bar,” says Bochco “has produced a show that people will feel compelled to watch.”

“And at the end of the day,” Wright says, “a studio can always find a way to monetize a good show.”

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