Are Heavily Serialized Dramas Heading Towards Extinction on Broadcast Nets?

Categories: Broadcast TV,Featured

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January 31st, 2010

Related:  Serialized Dramas Overwhelmingly Top TV Show DVD Sales in 2009

Related: Mo Ryan from February 2009: Has TV lost its nerve when it comes to complex dramas?

The topic of serial vs. procedural always seems to generate some discussion on our site.  For purposes of this discussion please note, the following shows are not serialized dramas, rather they are procedurals with  serialized story arcs:

Burn Notice is really as much a procedural as NCIS or The CloserWhite Collar, too.  Sure, the shows have serial story arcs, but the main part of those shows start and end their storylines within an episode -- the crime/mystery/murder/case/issue of the week.

You can watch any of those shows out of order without being completely lost (Bill will vouch that he watched the first season of Burn Notice almost completely out of order -- the setup at the opening tells you most of what you need to know).

I'm not arguing that you won't miss a thing or two if you watch the shows out of order.  But you can catch an individual episode of Burn Notice or House or Fringe and enjoy it even if you don't know the full back story.  Try jumping in during the middle of a season of Lost or Damages and it's much harder to enjoy.

Heavily Serialized Shows On Their Way Out at the Broadcast Networks?

The purpose of this post, however, isn't to debate whether Burn Notice and House are more serialized than NCIS.  The purpose is whether heavily serialized dramas like Heroes and Lost are on their way out.

Brodacasting & Cable's Marisa Guthrie has a post up titled, "An Entire Genre May Be 'Lost'" (and subtitled: As ABC hit begins final season, serialized dramas are an endangered species).

The article quotes anonymous network executives who rag on Heroes:

[...]serialized dramas, says one network executive, “are really hard to sustain. I have great respect for shows like Desperate Housewives that can keep it going. On the other end of the spectrum you've got Heroes, which is not quite one-and-done, but pretty close.”

One and done, and yet NBC has stretched it for four seasons anyway!  Despite its horrid ratings this year, I still wouldn't bet a lot of money it won't be back in some fashion for a fifth season!

A network executive noted that while Heroes inspired a very loyal audience, the series' precipitous ratings decline has been a disappointment. Serialized dramas, the executive says, “are a huge risk. The opportunity for [failure] is greater. We need to get things kick-started. The feeling was rather than try to take a shot on these big arching [series], we can do some really good close-ended dramas that don't have that kind of risk.”

Less Money in Syndication for Serialized Shows

The article notes that while Grey's Anatomy managed to fetch $1.2 million per episode in a deal with cable network Lifetime, shows like Lost and Heroes have only pulled in $500,000 per episode in syndication deals.

Such a big part of the lifetime revenue of a TV show comes from syndication that even if the networks were still enamored with heavily serialized dramas, it's hard to fault the studios if they are inclined to pitch more sitcoms and close-ended dramas.   That's the gravy train.    It doesn't matter how much I love Lost (I love it a lot!), I totally get that from a syndication perspective, studios want to churn out the next NCIS,  more than the next Lost.

Will Cable Become Home to the Heavily Serialized Drama?

The bigger question for me is whether cable will stand by the heavily serialized drama.  My guess at least for now is yes.    Sons Of Anarchy is FX's highest-rated show this season, and one of the highest-rated shows on cable.  It's about as heavily serialized as you can get.   Same for Showtime's Dexter, which in its fourth season saw record ratings.  And of course, the same holds for HBO's True Blood.  Indeed, HBO and Showtime have a lot of heavily serialized dramas.

Still, even on cable, procedural drama are among the biggest hits (see Burn Notice and The Closer).  I don't expect that to change, but I also don't expect the short-term flight to procedurals that may happen on broadcast.

Even On Broadcast,  It Might Just Be Cyclical -- or Merely Imagined!

Despite the tone of the B&C article,  it will be interesting next year to look at the number of one hour heavily serialized dramas versus this season.   I'm not sure it will change much.  CBS doesn't have any highly serialized dramas.  Outside of 24, which may or may not be back next season -- neither does FOX.   NBC has Heroes, but that's hardly a success at this point, and Friday Night Lights, which remains due to the deal with DirectTV.

ABC on the other hand still counts heavily serialized dramas among its biggest hits.  Sure, Lost won't be coming back, but even if they're down in the ratings, especially with the women's demographics they target, Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are still ABC's biggest hits.  Along with Private Practice and Brothers & Sisters, you can count on them being back next year.

Also, I wonder if at some point FOX, and ABC don't just cede the procedural space to CBS to a certain extent and offer up serialized dramas as counter-programming.    As for NBC there are a couple of ways to look at it.   Conventional wisdom suggests that NBC will be fearful of taking the perceived risk associated with heavily serialized dramas.

On the other hand,  some might argue, "What does NBC have to lose?"  Plus,  NBC's storied history is deeply rooted in serialized dramas going back to Hill Street Blues.   Interestingly, along with St. ElsewhereLA Law and ER, NBC had cornered the market on shows that walked the line of being almost half procedural and half serialized.   The serialized story lines on those shows were much bigger arcs than the likes of Burn Notice or House yet they had case of the week aspects to them in a way that shows like Lost, Dexter and Sons Of Anarchy do not.

For a long time, it was a very sweet spot for NBC.

Related:  Serialized Dramas Overwhelmingly Top TV Show DVD Sales in 2009

Update:  indeed, an interesting distinction made in the comments from "the demonhog:"

There is also a difference between shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Lost that should be noted. Both are serialized, but only one of them is a “mythology” show. This was summed up well by Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof to GQ:

“There’s a difference between serialization and mythology, though. Like Grey’s Anatomy is heavily serialized, in terms of the character relationships—who’s sleeping with who, who’s angry at who, who’s just been fired. And you have to watch every episode to understand the depth of it. … That’s different from a mythology, where you’re not entirely sure what’s going on unless you have an insular knowledge.”

 
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