New Formats Test TV Writers

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Shrinking ad buys and competition from the Web are forcing TV networks to offer shows "with limited commercial interruption." That means writers have to fill more minutes — and have to keep viewers engaged.

MADELEINE BRAND, host

The Fox television network is trying out a new idea. It's running two primetime dramas, "Dollhouse" and "Fringe," with fewer commercial breaks. The idea is that maybe viewers will actually watch the ads if there are less of them. Anyway, fewer ads means more minutes for the actual show. The writers will have to adjust and so will we, the viewers. Joel Rose prepared this report.

(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")

Unidentified Man: Hello Echo. How are you feeling?

Ms. ELIZA DUSHKU: (As Echo) Did I fall asleep?

Unidentified Man: For a little while.

Ms. DUSHKU: (As Echo) Shall I go now?

Unidentified Man: If you like.

JOEL ROSE: Premise of "Dollhouse" is that each week, Eliza Dushku's character Echo gets the personality and memories of a completely different person.

(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")

Unidentified Man #1: Everything go alright with the wife?

Unidentified Man #2: Why don't you just ask Echo? Oh, that's right because she can't remember.

ROSE: Then Echo undertakes various dangerous assignments before the end of the hour. That sounds like a bit of a handicap. Echo has one luxury other TV protagonists don't. Time - roughly, eight extra minutes per episode. "Dollhouse" has fewer commercials than most network TV dramas. That supposed to keep more viewers watching during the breaks. But as writer, director Joss Whedon told WHYY's Fresh Air, it can also put more pressure on the show's writing staff.

(Soundbite of Fresh Air interview)

Mr. JOSS WHEDON Director, Writer; WHYY): these ideas don't come fast. It's actually a very hard show to break, and in our cases, increasingly difficult because they added about 10 minutes of screen time by pulling out commercials. The tonnage is overwhelming for writers.

ROSE: "Dollhouse" is the second show to take part in what FOX is calling its remote-free TV initiative. The other is "Fringe," a sci-fi drama that premiered last fall.

(Soundbite of TV show "Fringe")

Unidentified Woman: Are you saying that you created...

Unidentified Man: A teleportation system, yeah, except for this one is meant to travel through time. How is that?

Unidentified Woman: So, you're saying that John's in theory could have zap himself out of prison.

Unidentified Man: Yes..

ROSE: Show runner Jeff Pinkner says the longer format has its advantages.

Mr. JEFF PINKNER (Producer, Fringe): It's a gift. We got to tell deeper, richer stories.

ROSE: But Pinkner says the extra length comes with a prize. He says each episode costs about 10 percent more to shoot than a normal network drama. No less real, though perhaps more difficult to measure, is the toll the extra scenes take on the writers.

Mr. PINKNER: Twelve percent tax on their brain. (Laughing) It's impossible to quantify how much harder it is to tell a longer story. The truth is now it would probably be hard for us to tell shorter stories. We've absorbed to the rhythm of the show.

ROSE: It's not clear if FOX is going to continue its remote-free TV experiment next season. Bill Gorman is an editor at the Web site TV by the Numbers. He says the early evidence is promising.

Mr. BILL GORMAN (Editor, TV by the Numbers): More people watch the ads, fewer people fast-forward through them. It's so far hasn't worked - at least based on what we understand, it hasn't worked from an economic prospective, in that FOX is not making up the money that they otherwise would have had by doing a full advertising load.

ROSE: Whether or not FOX decides to bring remote-free TV back, Gorman says networks will continue looking for ways to keep viewers from skipping the commercials either on their TV sets or on Web sites like Hulu. Networks and advertisers might take heart from a new study published this year in the journal of consumer research.

(Soundbite of theme song "Angela" from "Taxi")

ROSE: The authors made subject watches episodes of the TV show "Taxi" with and without commercial interruptions and they found something surprising.

Mr. JEFF GALAK (Doctoral Candidate, New York University): The prediction is that you won't enjoy the TV commercial and so you skipped it. But what we say that people, and myself included, are are making a bit of a mistake.

ROSE: Jeff Galak is a doctoral candidate at New York University and one of the authors of the study. He says viewers who watched the show with the commercials reported liking it more than those who didn't. So, while most viewers might think remote-free TV is a great idea, Galak isn't so sure.

Mr. GALAK: We know that consumers are going to jump on this or they think they want fewer TV commercials. Whether they subsequently enjoy it more had they had a longer commercial break or not, that's an empirical question.

ROSE: And it's one that FOX executives might want to think about before making their plans for next season. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of theme song "Angela" from "Taxi")

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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