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NBC has canceled one of the few ambitious dramas it still supports; what's the next step when you've already given up?
David McNew/Getty Images
All ribbing of Jay Leno aside, NBC's decision yesterday to cancel Southland, a police drama that was to return to the schedule later this month, signals an abandonment of a decades-long commitment to drama that's regrettable for the network, its viewers, and the creative people who continue to try to make things that are good and interesting and worthwhile.
Southland came from, among other producers, John Wells, the same guy who gave NBC ER and ran the last several seasons of The West Wing. The network promoted it heavily as the natural heir to its ER legacy when that show ended earlier this year. Of course, it couldn't run in the same time slot, because that slot (along with four other hours) would go to Jay Leno. But NBC's Angela Bromstad told The New York Times in April that while it was "a gritty cop show," it was also "a sophisticated drama." She added that it could "absolutely play at 9 o'clock."
More painfully in retrospect, Bromstad told the Times that NBC's commitment to only seven episodes shouldn't be a worry to Warner Brothers (the studio producing the show), because while the network hadn't officially committed beyond that, it was not going to use the show to fill the ER slot for the rest of the spring and then never use it again. "They were afraid we saw the show as space filler," she recalled. "But I told them, 'I promise you the intention is absolutely for this to return in the fall.'"
So those things turned out to be ... a little misleading.
NBC gives up, the state of drama, and much more, after the jump.
Despite so-so ratings for the first episodes that aired in the spring, the show was picked up for another 13 episodes to air in the fall. Originally scheduled to return in late September with the rest of the lineup, the show was moved to October and was to return Friday, October 23. And then yesterday, they canceled it, opting to run more episodes of Dateline NBC instead.
So, to review: As the show premiered, NBC was not only specifically providing reassurances that it intended to bring the show back in the fall, but it was specifically providing reassurances that it was comfortable running it — in spite of its "grit" — at 9:00 p.m., which was part of the grander push to make the point that giving up all of the 10:00 p.m. hour to Leno didn't mean they wouldn't have a place for a serious show for adults.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the explanation is that the network looked at the first six episodes and decided that they were too dark to air at 9:00. In other words, just as everyone feared and they denied, giving up the 10:00 time period had affected the network's ability and willingness to run adult dramas. And also, just as everyone feared and they denied, they wound up using the show to plug the post-ER hole and then left everybody affiliated with it holding the bag, not even letting any of the episodes air to see what would happen.
Wells did not mince words: "I'm disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically-acclaimed series that was for so many years, a hallmark of their success."
The act of renewing a show and then canceling it without giving the episodes an opportunity to run is the kind of thing that infuriates fans and, more to the point, seems highly likely to destroy the network's credibility in dealing with creative people. Yes, everybody understands networks want to make money; yes, it's a very cynical industry. But there remains, remarkably, a capacity to be disappointed. The first place I saw the news about Southland was actually on the Twitter feed of Shawn Ryan, the showrunner of FX's highly regarded The Shield and now of Fox's Lie To Me, who later commented, "This is an awful story for people like me."
At this point, if you come up with the next great drama — you have the next ER in your pocket, you have the next Lost — it seems at this moment like you would be out of your bird to do business with NBC. Don't believe me? When someone asked Ryan whether he thought the same thing could happen to him, he said, "They would in a heartbeat. Wells is top notch, they did it to him." Now, that may not be specific to NBC, which is not the only network to ever cancel a show prematurely in a way that seems unfair to a respected showrunner. (Consider this your official Whedon/Firefly acknowledgment.)
But this kind of a move makes your network seem particularly likely to pull the rug out from under a show that's barely seen the light of day — and that has been given specific assurances that this wouldn't happen. And if NBC isn't concerned about burning all of its bridges with people like John Wells (who, remember, has been in business with the network since ER bowed in 1994) or with Warner Brothers, to the point where they wouldn't even give the episodes a chance to air, that seems like a pretty good sign that it has given up on drama entirely.
It's not surprising, given the poor performances this fall of Trauma and Mercy, its new medical dramas, the sinking of the once-promising Heroes, and the fact that Law & Order: SVU has been hammered since being booted to 9:00 p.m. (and incidentally, anyone who finds any show at all too "gritty" for 9:00 isn't going to leave SVU there for long, is my guess). It was easy to see the Leno move as a surrender of most of the drama space NBC was occupying anyway, but I think many of us suspected they might at least try for one season to make a go of dramas at 9:00.
What makes this story particularly frustrating is that in spite of what you read about costs and splintering audiences and a future made up of nothing but variety shows, there are indications that there are ways to make money with scripted shows. A Newsweek profile in July of this year discussed the remarkable successes of the USA network under the guidance of Bonnie Hammer, who helped turn USA into a major moneymaker. What's her strategy?
Good scripted shows, for one thing. Burn Notice, Monk, Psych, the new Royal Pains, and others. From that profile: "Of all NBCU's properties, including the namesake broadcaster NBC and its Universal studio, USA has become the biggest earner, delivering roughly $1 billion in profits last year." Hammer is not a snob — she has embraced USA's relationship with professional wrestling. But her big strategy is good shows people like, and she's making money. NBC Universal owns this network — how is its broadcast network making worse shows than, and making less money than, one of its cable properties? They're all in Rockefeller Center — they're in the building. Go ask them how they're doing it.
A similar argument might be made in favor of SyFy (formerly Sci Fi), which has been getting surprisingly good returns from shows like Warehouse 13 and the new Stargate Universe (and is also an NBCU property). Look at AMC, which has put itself on the map as it never was in the past by making Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It took two dramas to move that network from one nobody took seriously to one everybody takes seriously.
Yes, costs are out of whack. Yes, audiences are getting smaller. Yes, the economics are going to require adjustment. But cable network after cable network has expanded, not contracted, its commitments in drama: Showtime, FX, AMC, Lifetime, SyFy, TNT ... the fact that the slices of pie are going to be smaller doesn't mean there's no life in scripted shows, and if you're NBC and you made ER, and you made L.A. Law, and you made St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues and The West Wing, the day you throw your hands in the air and say "Heck with it, we'll just use more Dateline instead of even giving the episodes of the new John Wells drama that are already in the can an opportunity to be seen by anyone" is a sad day.
How did ABC rehabilitate itself a few years ago? Lost and Desperate Housewives, primarily. What brings a ton of viewers to CBS? NCIS. What are the more successful new shows of the fall? They're all scripted: NCIS: LA, The Good Wife, the ABC comedies on Wednesdays. What, on the other hand, was the last new unscripted network hit you can think of?
Yes, audiences for dramas are getting smaller, but so are audiences for American Idol, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model. The Jay Leno Show is teetering right around the low end of the ratings NBC says it needs in order to be the great idea they said it was. If that fails, does that mean you give up on scripted television and unscripted television and become a shopping network? Eventually, you have to stop assuming that entire categories are dead and just do better.
Ultimately, if you're going to function as a broadcast network, you have to be willing to gamble on your ability to have, and to support, people who have ideas. Survivor didn't do great things for CBS because it's unscripted; it did great things for CBS because it was an idea that worked, and so was American Idol, and so was ER, and so was Lost, and so was Mad Men. Five hours a week of The Jay Leno Show is not an idea; it is a dodge. It is a hole-plugging strategy so you don't have to have an idea.
Costs have to come down, and it's an extraordinarily bumpy time for the networks, but whatever is going to happen, hunkering down with Dateline and deciding that you're going to stop trying is no more promising a way to make money than following the example your own cable networks are setting and finding something good to put on.
The question at this point is whether it's too late for NBC to get back in the game.