Dramas staking claims, but allure of reality taking up airtime
50 minutes ago
By Scott Collins
LOS ANGELES (The Hollywood Reporter) --- In an era when "American Idol" and other reality hours set ratings records, TV's top producers of scripted fare must be headed straight for the unemployment line, right?
Well, hold your pity. "Idol" judge Simon Cowell hasn't completely taken over Hollywood yet.
As the networks complete their pickups for fall drama pilots, several key writer-producers have already chalked up megabucks deals for proposed series. Steven Bochco is behind "NYPD 2069," a Paramount Network Television-produced futuristic cop show for Fox, with the pilot estimated to cost $5 million-$7 million (the network will pay a license fee of $3.5 million-$4 million, sources estimated).
After a stormy year for David E. Kelley -- with Fox canceling "Ally McBeal," his fall drama "girls club" fizzling out after two episodes and ABC moving "The Practice" into the line of fire of another hot reality show, Fox's "Joe Millionaire" -- the superproducer is hoping for a reversal of fortune with a CBS drama series commitment (including a $4 million-plus pilot) about three brothers in a fictional New England hamlet.
And Jerry Bruckheimer, whose TV company is home to CBS' "CSI" franchise, is continuing his prolific ways with three high-end drama projects spread among CBS, Fox and the WB Network.
Name-brand actors aren't destined for poverty, either: Rob Lowe locked up a deal for an NBC legal drama, 20th Century Fox TV/Brad Grey TV's "The Lyon's Den," which will pay him an estimated $125,000 per episode.
Still, the strong numbers for Fox's "Idol" and "Millionaire" -- and, to a lesser extent, ABC's "The Bachelorette" -- have fueled a sense around town that the development game has changed. That is especially true for dramas, which are generally costly to make and can be replaced easily by far less expensive reality hours.
Network executives say they are ordering about the same number of drama pilots -- and spending about the same amount of development money -- as last year. In fact, most nets seem to have trimmed at least one or two pilots from their slate compared with last year's orders, though a few more drama pilot greenlights likely will be given in the coming week.
But studio executives and producers still fret that the reality craze will leave fewer slots for new dramas when broadcasters' fall schedules are announced in May.
"It's sort of an unavoidable conclusion," 20th TV co-president Gary Newman said. "Networks are having great success with unscripted programming, and it's very appealing to them to program typically less expensive shows that are doing good ratings." He adds that studios "probably ought to be" concerned about the trend.
NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker agreed with other industry veterans that the fall schedules at the Big Four networks will likely contain at least 10 hours of unscripted non-news programming. "The success of reality is clearly eye-opening," he said.
Furthermore, hits like "Idol" and "Joe Millionaire" have highlighted the fact that most dramas no longer earn strong ratings in repeats (the rare exceptions are CBS' "CSI" and NBC's "Law & Order" franchise).
"There's too much good television on the air for the audience to watch repeats," said David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, which has drama pilots at Fox and the WB through its Regency Television arm.
The one-play environment for dramas is putting added pressure on an economic model for scripted hours that was already strained to the breaking point. With reality increasingly in the primetime mix, coupled with the recent downturn in the demand for U.S. fare in the international TV marketplace, which producers depend on to offset rising production deficits, the laws of supply and demand are kicking in.
"If the trend of scheduling more reality programs continues, then it may slowly begin to drive down pricing for above-the-line talent as more dramas and comedies compete for fewer slots," ABC Entertainment Group executive vp Mark Pedowitz said.
Zucker is even more emphatic. "One byproduct of the reality stuff on all networks is that the town is going to have to look at the economics" of TV dramas, he said. "It's going to have to change." Referring to high-end dramas that run more than $2 million per episode to make -- translating into a $1.5 million or higher license fee from the network -- he added: "There's no reason a drama should cost what it does."
Some projects that might have made the cut in the past aren't getting through this time. "Nerve," a DreamWorks/NBC Studios drama pilot, eventually fell apart after NBC refused to guarantee star Elizabeth Hurley's $200,000 per-episode fee for at least six episodes, an executive said. A spokesman for UTA, which reps Hurley, declined comment.
But industry veterans cautioned that networks would be wise not to play the reality card too much. For one thing, unscripted shows aren't exactly the basement bargains they once were. CBS' "Survivor" cost about $900,000 per episode during its first season in 2000, but the going rate for current episodes is more than double that price. "Idol" cost an estimated $800,000 per episode last summer; now it runs more than $1 million, sources said. And it's well documented that reality shows have virtually no repeat value either.
An even bigger worry is that networks have been burned by unscripted programming before. ABC is still recovering from its decision to strip "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" across four nights in primetime during the 2000-01 season.
20th TV's Newman noted that networks have gone through similar cycles before, including a newsmagazine mania during the '90s and a sitcom dearth during the early '80s. Drama as an art form isn't going away, he said.
"I don't think (networks will) turn away from these shows," Newman said. "They know the audience will always want the experience of watching drama."