Austere productions reflect depleted budgets

During what turned out to be the final season of Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” the Terminator conspicuously did less terminating. Instead, characters spent more time talking, usually in what appeared to be “locations” on the Warner Bros. lot.

Would the average person notice? The networks insist not, and say they can do TV cheaper — which has been a major factor in setting the upcoming fall lineups — without detracting from the viewing experience.

The budget imperative is plainly evident in the mix of programs. From Jay Leno’s primetime talk/comedy strip to regularly scheduled two-hour editions of reality shows “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Biggest Loser,” networks are clearly determined to dance as inexpensively as they can.

The new question, though, has become whether dramas and sitcoms can slash budgets without seriously compromising quality.

Notably, the same issue has arisen in other entertainment spheres. Major sports franchises have already responded to the economic downturn by jettisoning all-stars in favor of less-expensive journeymen — sacrificing title hopes to stay afloat financially (though they may not admit it).

On Broadway, New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently argued that penny-pinching has actually fostered greater ingenuity amid the current slate of Tony-worthy offerings.

This season’s newfound austerity, he wrote, “may be a concession to inflated production costs and shrinking purses. But the starkness also has the effect of reconfirming theater’s essential priorities.”

As new Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice stressed, TV’s unique attribute remains its ability to develop and explore characters over multiple hours and seasons — forging serialized relationships with the audience that, unlike summer movies, don’t hinge on blowing stuff up.

Network television, however, approximates the multiplex more than the arthouse. It’s the equivalent of Broadway’s big musicals, not its off-off-Broadway plays.

Given that, the discount approach carries obvious risks. Financial limitations don’t augur well for this season’s by-the-fingernails survivors — low-rated programs such as NBC’s “Chuck” and Fox’s “Dollhouse,” which avoided execution by agreeing to roll back production costs.

Even character-driven programs aren’t entirely immune, since reduced budgets will be hard-pressed to support the large ensemble casts that characterize many of TV’s hourlong dramas.

Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly tried to have it both ways, telling reporters, “I do not believe you’re going to see (budget cuts) … reflected in a lesser product on the air,” adding, “In many instances, we find that pulling back actually gives even more creative focus.”

Translation: People won’t notice it’s cheaper — and if they do, hey, spending less might even make the shows better!

Alas, that rosy assessment thus far isn’t born out by reality. As a critic, I’ve already noticed cost-cutting mandates exacting a not-so-subtle toll on series such as “Terminator” and CW’s “Smallville” — programs that require at least a modicum of special effects and action to keep itchy viewers hooked.

Modern viewers don’t care about series paring down their writing staffs, but they’re too sophisticated not to sense budget maneuvers that manifest themselves onscreen. And while some programs will stay equally compelling, others will suffer if arbitrarily forced to shoot longer scenes or lose supporting players.

To see a stark example of this, try watching “Heroes,” then go view its webisodes produced for the Internet. The titles look the same, but after that, it’s all secondary actors, Spartan effects and lots of direct-to-camera exposition.

Certain belt-tightening measures — like forcing a show to get by without a half-dozen executive producers — are probably long overdue, even without the constraints imposed by today’s economy.

Yet as ABC Entertainment prexy Stephen McPherson told advertisers, TV requires “taking the chances that we need to take.” The same network, after all, was on life support before gambling $12 million on the “Lost” pilot, which along with “Desperate Housewives” helped trigger its turnaround.

Viewed this way, mitigating risk also threatens to blunt any potential rewards, as NBC has done: Even if Leno’s five weekly hours cost less than a single drama, the trade-off is that one drama might possess game-changing potential, which the Leno format lacks.

On the plus side, primetime could inadvertently become a bit more civil. Because instead of settling differences with bloody fights or perilous chases, out of necessity future conflicts might be resolved by talking things over … and talking … and then talking some more.

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