Dana Walden’s first encounter with the phenomenon of binge-watching came years ago when the 20th Century Fox TV chief ran into screenwriter Scott Rosenberg while on vacation in Hawaii. After introductions were made, Rosenberg noted that she ran the studio behind “24.”
“He let me know that he and his girlfriend had barely seen the Hawaiian sun because they’d started watching season one of ‘24’ and couldn’t stop,” Walden recalls.
Thirteen years after its debut, the Fox series, which aired from 2001-2010, can count binge-watching among the trailblazing accomplishments it has contributed to the contemporary boom in serialized dramas that feature cinematic flair. And Fox is again counting on Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer to save the day — and provide an eleventh-hour boost to the network’s fortunes at the close of a rocky season: The 12-episode “24: Live Another Day” reunion bows May 5 in the U.S., and nearly day-and-date in a host of other territories.
The experience of reuniting the “24” team for 12 more missions has caused the principals to reflect on how dramatically the TV biz has changed in just the four years since the series ended — and how much the 20th TV/Imagine TV series was ahead of the curve.
“It anticipated a lot of the trends that happened after our show (began),” says Bob Cochran, who created the series with Joel Surnow. “I can’t honestly say we anticipated those trends, but we were happy to take advantage of them.”
Onscreen, “24” was famously and eerily prescient about the world it depicted. Bauer was fighting terrorist plots in the pilot episode filmed months before the tragedy of 9/11. The show presented America with the notion of an African-American commander-in-chief eight years before Barack Obama was elected.
Storylines during its eight seasons often sparked controversy, as “24” made high drama out of torture as an anti-terrorism tool, and foresaw the use of military drones, cyber-warfare and the unpredictability of alliances among extremist groups.
Off camera, the “24” team was equally bold. Fox and 20th TV gambled on a project that broke every rule of repeatability (and syndication math) with its real-time storytelling format and emphasis on a weekly cliffhanger. It’s hard to imagine now, but when “24” opened in November 2001, DVRs were in a miniscule 1% of TV households. VOD and Internet streaming were even less prevalent for most viewers. There was no easy way for people to sample episodes if they hadn’t started out with the show from the start, and “24’s” ratings in its first season reflected this problem. Despite glowing reviews and a huge marketing push, the series didn’t catch fire at first.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Kiefer Sutherland, Producers on the Impact of “24”
Out of sheer determination to keep an expensive skein on the air, 20th TV decided to release the DVD box set of season one immediately rather than to wait a few years, as was the norm, in order to protect syndication sales.
“We knew how good (the show) was,” says Fox Broadcasting chief operating officer Joe Earley. “We knew if people had the chance to get caught up with it, they would stick with it.”
The DVD set sold surprisingly well, viewership on the network spiked in season two, and a business model for hyper-serialized programs was born.
Today, cable VOD, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have moved in on the physical disc territory, but the concept of allowing people the option of sampling — or scarfing — shows on their own timetable is the same.
Also significant was the decision starting in season four to move “24” out of the fall to a January premiere date in order to allow episodes to air over consecutive weeks without repeats through the end of the season. That move was hotly debated internally but wound up being a big boon to viewership.
“I’m so grateful we’re not looking back at it as one of those shows where we say, ‘If only it had been on a couple of years later,’” Walden says. “The ability to bring it back now is so rewarding.”
Howard Gordon, the longtime showrunner of “24,” spearheaded the idea of presenting the new iteration as a one-off miniseries lensing in London. Greenlighting the concept was a no-brainer for the network and the studio, given the depth of the global fan base and the fact that Sutherland — whose dedication to the role is cited by all involved as the linchpin of the enterprise — and the core creative team were onboard.
“Howard and Kiefer set such a tone as leaders of this show,” Walden says.
Sutherland had input in the tone of the new episodes, right down to influencing the image projected on the key art, according to Earley. He embraced the darker and edgier thrust of his character, who has been in hiding for the past four years since he made a narrow escape in the “24” series finale.
Cochran also came back to write several episodes. Surnow did not formally sign on, but stopped in to help edit the first few segs.
The shift to a 12-episode format also has been invigorating, and easier to manage than the regimen of 24 hourlong episodes.
“Every year we ran into a hiccup in the season usually around episode 15 or 16 when you had to make that shift to the last eight episodes; that was always the rough spot for us,” Sutherland says. “We don’t have that situation now. The story can be more condensed, more focused, and each episode more energized.”
For years there’s been chatter about Fox mounting a “24” movie, but Cochran is happy to see the series back on the smallscreen rather than forcing the concept into a two-hour feature.
“I’m glad (‘24’) came back this way,” he says. “This is more of its natural habitat.”