Broadcast TV Changes Its Formula
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
With the new year, broadcast networks usher in a new slate of prime-time programs to replace fall shows that have been canceled or put on break. This month at least six reality series will be on the air, some old, some new. Networks are also premiering new dramas and comedies. Overall, broadcast television looks very different today than it did 10 years ago when programs generally fell into a few well-defined categories. There were the sitcoms, such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld," and the hourlong dramas, such as "NYPD Blue" and "ER," but broadcast TV is changing and NPR's Nova Safo reports that the reasons have a lot to do with audience tastes and what sells.
NOVA SAFO: Not all that long ago, one of the highest-rated shows on TV was a straight-ahead trauma with plot lines revolving around the arcane workings of government.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WEST WING" THEME MUSIC)
SAFO: NBC's "The West Wing" premiered in 1998 and is now in its seventh season. Actor Bradley Whitford has been with the show since the beginning. He portrays Josh Lyman. Whitford says "The West Wing" has always been about a bunch of people in suits standing around in offices talking, talking and talking.
BRADLEY WHITFORD: Our shows are not about special effects. They're about stories and words.
SAFO: In the seven years that "The West Wing" has been on the air, broadcast TV has undergone change, and there are now shows that are much more visually spectacular and action-oriented than "The West Wing."
(SOUNDBITE OF "LOST")
Unidentified Man #1: Go. Go. Go. Go. Go.
SAFO: The very successful "Lost" had its premiere on ABC in 2004, the story of plane crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island and the dangers that surround them. "Lost" focuses on character development and multiple story lines over many episodes, things that traditional dramas have done. But it also has a certain amount of action and suspense.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LOST")
Unidentified Man #2: Who are you people?
Unidentified Man #3: Just give us the boy.
Man #2: I'm not giving you anybody.
Man #3: Well, all right then. (Gunshots heard)
Man #2: Hey! Hey! Whoa...
SAFO: So how did we get from "The West Wing" to "Lost"? The answer's in the seven years between the two shows, a period when networks relied heavily on reality and procedural programs. There are about 15 procedurals on TV right now. Procedurals are essentially mysteries that rely on the process of solving a crime to drive the plot in each episode--shows like the very popular "CSI," which remains the highest-rated program so far this season.
(SOUNDBITE OF "CSI")
Unidentified Man #4: ...multiple lacerations and contusions, no vital response to the injuries.
Unidentified Man #5: Perimortal?
Man #4: Yep.
Man #5: He was dumped in a back yard by a whole bunch of other people. Do you think they could have beat him to death?
HANSEN: I think it took a lot of people to do this.
JOE ADALIAN: There is the golden age that I think we're coming to an end of right now, the golden age of the procedural drama.
SAFO: Joe Adalian is TV editor for the Hollywood trade publication Daily Variety. He says broadcast networks saw procedurals as the answer to the changes in the way people watch TV.
ADALIAN: The thinking was people are so busy they can't watch every episode of a show, so therefore, give them a show that you can watch 12 weeks a year out of 24 episodes and it'll be OK. You can watch a "Law & Order" if you've never seen "Law & Order" before, because it's a self-contained story line. You don't need to know the characters.
SAFO: Procedural shows work both for the audience and the network's bottom line. They can be easily sold to cable channels or independent stations that want to rerun old episodes, making them more profitable than traditional dramas. Reality TV is also profitable because it's relatively cheaper to produce, according to Film LA Incorporated, a non-profit entertainment industry group. The average cost of production for a one-hour drama is $2 million per episode. That's compared to $700,000 per episode for a reality series.
Both reality and procedural shows have another key element that helps promote and market the programs. TV writer Gina Fattore calls it incident.
GINA FATTORE: Incident is there's a fight between two drunk guys at the third-act break, you know, and that's something that is easier to promote. You can sell it in 10 seconds; when you see two guys having a fight you know what the story is very quickly.
SAFO: Or children throwing a tantrum, as in ABC's "Supernanny."
(SOUNDBITE OF "SUPERNANNY")
Unidentified Man #6: Is this familiar? Children don't come with an instruction book. But now sanity is speeding your way. She's Supernanny, gifted with...
SAFO: A show like "Supernanny" is very different from what Gina Fattore is used to. She was the writer on "Dawson's Creek," a successful character-driven teen drama. In 2003, the show went off the air, and Fattore says she found it surprisingly hard to get work. Fattore says writers had better luck if they could emulate reality TV, emphasizing plot and incident.
FATTORE: Incident is a word that I don't think I ever heard once when I worked on "Dawson's Creek," and I feel like that's kind of what people are looking for in their scripted drama, or at least that's what the networks think people are looking for. It's something that really ups the ante and has a high level of incident.
SAFO: And that brings us back to ABC's "Lost," which along with "Desperate Housewives" is enjoying very strong ratings. Both shows deliver on incident and interweaving story lines that arc over many episodes. The two shows are a hybrid of old and new storytelling techniques, a focus on character and action-oriented plot. The mystery at the heart of "Lost" is where the plane crash survivors are and what, if anything, brought them there. That mystery remains veiled well into its second season. In the meantime, the characters face seemingly constant dangers while they struggle with their pasts and their uncertain future. For its part, "Desperate Housewives" relies on the ongoing intrigue of unsolved murders and the personal trials and travails of its four lead characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF "DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES")
Unidentified Woman #1: It was 5: It was 5:00 in the morning on Wisteria Lane when the phone calls started.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
Woman #1: It was 5: Of course, each of them knew something was wrong from that first ring.
Unidentified Woman #2: Hello?
SAFO: Part of the draw of incident-driven shows is their ability to hook viewers, keep their attention and keep them tuned in through commercial breaks.
LAWRENCE O: We are in the business of providing the material that prevents the commercials from all slamming together.
SAFO: And that, says "West Wing" executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell, is what every twitch of TV programming is really about.
DONNELL: That's what we're doing here. That's what we're doing on "The West Wing" set. We've got to deliver them 12 minutes of stuff to separate the Chevy commercials.
SAFO: The amount of commercial time is increasing in broadcast TV and even established shows such as "The West Wing" are feeling the pressure to inject suspense for that same result as hybrid shows get with incident.
DONNELL: You have these things called act-outs, which is that final moment that takes you to a commercial. And it's got to be kind of a cool moment. And oh, by the way, it has to come at 13 minutes and 42 seconds into the show. And then you've got to have another one of those another eight and a half minutes after that.
SAFO: The silver lining, says Daily Variety's Joe Adalian, is that TV executives are realizing that more is possible now.
ADALIAN: Today's television audience is a lot savvier than it used to be. People are used to managing a whole bunch of different characters in their head. They're used to people coming and going and trading teams and all sorts of weird situations, and I think what "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" proved was that you can have the big arcs, big ideas and big casts, and the public can handle it.
SAFO: So television is developing into a more varied landscape. Evidence of that is the list of the top-10 highest-rated shows during the fall of 2005. It includes five procedurals, two hybrids, one reality show, one traditional program and, of course, "Monday Night Football." Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.
HANSEN: For a more comprehensive look at what's coming up on the tube, check out reporter Rick Karr's three-part series on the future of television. It's at our Web site, npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARVELETTES: (Singing) Wait. Oh, yes, wait a minute, Mr. Postman. Wait. Wait...
HANSEN: Postal rates go up today. Paying the gas bill by snail mail will now cost 39 cents for a first-class stamp. That may mean a setback for household budgets, but it's also a good excuse to close the hour with some music from The Marvelettes.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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