In one of the more spectacular examples of TV networks following a trend straight off a cliff, more than a half-dozen densely plotted new serial dramas failed this season.
Not since the flood of misbegotten “Friends” knockoffs of the 1990s or the turn-of-the-century “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” game-show frenzy has broadcast television been so betrayed by a genre.
As networks shape their fall 2007 schedules, the canceled ghosts of serialized “Day Break,” “Vanished,” “Kidnapped” and others are hovering. But they have company: the winning spirit of “Heroes,” the high-concept freshman serial that made good.
So while crime shows may be the hot trend for next season, TV executives and observers say that, despite the duds, serials will continue to find their way into the network lineups. Just not as many.
“We’re going to see fewer than last year because networks copy what works and shy away from what doesn’t,” said analyst Steve Sternberg of ad-buying firm Magna Global.
“It always has to do with what was the success the most recent year,” agreed Bill Carroll of ad-buyer Katz Television. “So we’re going to see things that either have a crime fighter, a superhero or the supernatural.”
The pilots that were “greenlighted” by the major networks for consideration lean toward crime procedurals, the most viewer-friendly genre for those who want to dip in and out of a show and not keep tabs on elaborate story arcs.
Of the serialized dramas angling for a network spot, the balance is in favor of comfy soap operas instead of complex thrillers. It won’t all be mundane, however, with some exotic concepts — a show about Satan or a weekly musical, anyone? — under consideration.
Some new serial dramas still in the works
Networks will present their fall lineups to advertisers in New York next week.
“Our pilots are evenly split: half are procedurals, half are serials,” said Jeff Bader, head of scheduling at ABC. “What is true right now is the most successful shows on television are serialized shows. Those are the ones that are popping right now.”
As proof, he points to ABC’s hit including “Grey’s Anatomy” and promising newcomers “Brothers & Sisters,” “October Road” and, among the competition, NBC’s breakout “Heroes.”
The perspective is shared by others in the industry.
Ted Gold, Fox’s senior vice president for drama development, considers it likely the network will add a new serial drama this fall. He cites the network’s success with “24” and “Prison Break.”
“Serialized shows do ask a large commitment from the audience,” Gold said. “People who watch are usually die-hards who need to watch all the episodes. That said, (serials have) been a cornerstone of this network and if we have a good one, we’ll do it.”
Besides, hope and cockiness spring eternal.
“There’s a lot of ego involved,” said a studio executive, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid offending clients. “A network might think that ‘The Nine’ didn’t work because ‘They’re not as good as we are,”’ he said.
“The Nine” was a failed serial that tried to make a flashy premise — nine people survive a hostage-taking — into a relationship drama.
“There’s always, ‘I can do it better,”’ the executive said, adding, “It’s not arrogance as much as healthy self-esteem.”
It’s undeniable that serialization is an entrenched part of modern TV. Nearly every show — police dramas and comedies included — expect viewers to have a passing knowledge of the central theme, characters and relationships.
“It’s not like the days of ‘Dragnet,’ when you didn’t know who the hell (Sgt. Joe) Friday was. You need to know the characters. It makes a show good, makes it satisfying,” said Marc Berman, analyst for Media Week Online.
But this season’s serial failures demanded too much and gave too little. They required obsessive weekly attention and could still be confounding. In some, extended story arcs didn’t make room for any of the weekly plot payoff guaranteed by shows like the “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises.
Viewers responded with their remote controls.
ABC’s “Day Break,” about a police detective who kept reliving the same day as he tried to prove himself innocent of murder, lasted six episodes before cancellation. Fox’s “Vanished,” about the disappearance of a senator’s wife, got nine airings. NBC’s “Kidnapped” and its tale of an abducted rich kid had a paltry five-episode run.
Then there were CBS’ “Smith,” CW’s “Runaway,” Fox’s “Drive” and ABC’s “The Nine,” all gone.
Despite the jarring failures endured by the networks, they’re resisting timidity, as they must. They face growing competition for consumer attention not just from cable channels but alternate entertainment including online providers.
So ABC is pondering the high-concept “Pushing Daisies,” about a man whose touch brings the dead back to life; CBS may go for a zombie drama, “Babylon Fields,” or “Demons,” about a priest standing against Satan. The NBC schedule could include “Journeyman,” with a time-traveling problem solver, while Fox might go for “Them,” based on a graphic novel about alien spies.
Other fall possibilities (all titles are tentative, as are their futures): NBC’s “Fort Pit,” about police banished to a tough New York precinct; “Life,” about a wrongly jailed ex-cop who rejoins the department, and “The Bionic Woman,” a new version of the 1970s superhero series.
Over at Fox, the network is eying pilots including “K-Ville,” about police who hung on in post-Katrina New Orleans; “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” based on the “Terminator” movie character, and “New Amsterdam,” with a police detective who happens to be centuries old.
CBS is pondering such eclectic choices as “Viva Laughlin” a musical mystery series with Hugh Jackman; “Swingtown,” set in 1970s suburbia and the swingers scene, and an untitled Hispanic family drama with Jimmy Smits.
Possibly in the cards for ABC is the crime procedural “Suspect,” “Cashmere Mafia,” from “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, about a set of successful women, and, most prominently, the potential “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff with Kate Walsh that was road-tested last week.
A network has to strive for variety and keep all options open, even risky ones, said Fox’s Gold. That’s why serial dramas remain on the table.
“Anybody that overcorrects and starts to put all their programming in one box will be dead. There’s too many choices out there, and every time you say, ‘We can never do this,’ somebody else will come out and succeed doing just what you said they couldn’t do.”