Dramas Resurgent In TV's 10 P.M. Time Slots

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Now that NBC is ending Jay Leno's prime-time show, the networks know what doesn't work on television at 10 p.m. — a talk variety show. As NBC scrambles to fill the last hour of its prime-time schedule, network executives, advertising analysts and TV writers were asked how they figure out what to program at 10 p.m.


Well, the early days of this year have not been boring at NBC, either. Jay Leno is heading back to his old slot, and the network has announced its plan to fill the 10:00 weeknight slots.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jay Leno Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Jay Leno Show"): Hey, NBC said they wanted drama at 10:00. Now they got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: Now they got it. Everybody...

AMOS: Jay Leno was right in more ways than one. Some of the shows taking his place are dramas, which made NPR's Neda Ulaby wonder what is so special about 10 PM.

NEDA ULABY: Once upon a time, a long time ago, NBC ruled 10:00 with smart, provocative dramas that became iconic.

(Soundbite of music, "Law and Order" theme)

ULABY: The very last remnant of that era is a franchise that's almost 20 years old: "Law and Order." And the way NBC executives decided to deal with that problem was to radically change directions last year. NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff welcomed Leno to 10:00.

Mr. MARC GRABOFF (Co-chair, NBC): The planets aligned perfectly. This is the right show at the right time with exactly the right person.

ULABY: Or maybe not.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Television Critic, St. Petersburg Times): I think NBC had kind of bet that the era of the 10 PM drama was dead.

ULABY: NBC lost that bet, says Eric Deggans. He covers television for the St. Petersburg Times. The network focused on profit, he says. Talk shows earn less money than dramas from advertisers, but they're amazingly cheaper to produce. People who make TV dramas found this a disturbing trend.

Mr. KURT SUTTER (Screenwriter, actor): I think we were all afraid that the drama was in trouble.

ULABY: Kurt Sutter is best known for writing and playing a hit man on the FX drama "The Shield."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Shield")

Mr. SUTTER: (as Margos Dezerian) Reggie pulled off a power play, taking control of the Armenian operation.

ULABY: "The Shield" is one of the 10 P.M. basic cable shows that are, in some ways, this era's "Hill Street Blues." They include "Damages," "Mad Men," "Nip/Tuck" and "Breaking Bad." Recently, cable dramas have started to do something previously unheard of: beating the networks at 10 PM.

Mr. SUTTER: One of the shows that beat Leno in the ratings was "Sons of Anarchy" on FX.

(Soundbite of TV show "Sons of Anarchy")

Mr. ADAM ARKIN (Actor): (as Ethan Zobelle) We feel it would be best for all concerned if you stopped dealing arms to the One-Niners and the Mayans.

Mr. RON PERLMAN (Actor): (as Clarence Clay Morrow) We're mechanics, Harley lovers.

ULABY: "Sons of Anarchy" is one of the better shows you'll see about murderous, gun-running motorcycle gangs. It was created by Kurt Sutter.

Mr. SUTTER: The 10 PM slot, I think, is traditionally a different tone -shows with darker nature, violence or sexuality. The idea is that younger viewers are not watching TV after 10 PM.

ULABY: Ten is a sweet spot. The kids are in bed, but it's still prime time, when advertisers pay more. Later does not work, says Michael Wright. He's an executive at TNT and TBS, which produces 10 PM dramas like "Men of a Certain Age."

Mr. MICHAEL WRIGHT (Executive, TBS, TNT): It's just impractical on a business level to run an original, scripted drama at 11:00.

ULABY: But it's beginning to matter less when some shows run. Almost 30 percent of American households use TiVos or other DVRs. NBC seems to have thought Jay Leno was TiVo-proof. Topical shows have to be watched live in order to talk about them the next day.

Mr. DEGGANS: Actually, he was totally TiVo-vulnerable.

ULABY: TV critic Eric Deggans.

Mr. DEGGANS: People were using the 10 PM hour to watch things that they had recorded previously. You know, in my house, my wife records "Oprah," and so a lot of times we might be watching "Oprah" or we might be watching something else in that hour.

ULABY: Now, NBC hopes to make that hour worth watching again. It's only got one new drama ready in time, a show based on the movie "Parenthood." The other 10 PM spots will be filled with two flavors of "Law and Order," "Dateline," and a reality show.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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