Doing the math

TV networks turn to game shows as they lose faith in high-cost serialized dramas

November 01, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

The shift in the bedrock of primetime television is evident in the fortunes of NBC's no-frills game show 1 vs 100 and its lavish drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Last month, NBC added 1 vs 100, a quiz program featuring stunningly easy questions, a roster of talent that begins and ends with B-list comic Bob Saget, and contestants who compete in a stadium-like setting with 100 opponents at a time.

Instantly, it became the most-watched Friday-night show on network TV with 12.3 million viewers. The show costs Hollywood production company Endemol USA about $700,000 an episode to produce -- and NBC only had to commit to ordering five episodes -- for a total risk of $3.5 million.

Compare that with Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a new drama with a large ensemble cast that includes stars Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet. Last week, Studio 60, which costs about $3 million an episode to make, was seen by 7.7 million viewers. And NBC is on the hook for at least 13 episodes -- an upfront investment of $39 million, more than 10 times that of 1 vs 100.

With network programmers losing faith in high-cost serialized storytelling, and boardroom bosses looking to cut prime-time production costs, game shows are the networks' new favorite flavor of the season. Three new ones are scheduled to debut this month -- with The Rich List, an English import featuring unlimited prize money, arriving tonight on Fox.

"Game shows are a great business model because the math just makes so much sense," says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which has two game shows on NBC and two more on the way on ABC this month.

"We've heard of one-hour dramas typically costing between $3 [million] and $5 million, while these game shows can be produced at the network level in the $700,000-and-up range," Goldberg said. "Plus, a typical drama is shot over multiple days, while we can sometimes shoot two and three episodes of a game show in one day. You can do the math."

One of prime-time television's most dependable laws is that every few years a new series will become such a huge and unexpected hit that TV executives will do anything to emulate it.

In 2000, CBS struck gold with Survivor, spurring a rush to reality programming. This year, the NBC game show Deal or No Deal, featuring host Howie Mandel and suitcases full of money, is looking as if it is the hit to copycat.

Part of the explanation involves the way in which viewers seem to respond to shows about winning huge sums in an era of large personal debt. But the driving force in the rush to game-show programming is how cheap the shows are to produce -- a quality that has become increasingly important in a fall season filled with expensive dramas that have failed to strike a chord with viewers.

Using the most conservative estimates offered by producers and network executives, game shows cost one-quarter of the price and take one-tenth the time to produce as a weekly drama series. And so far this fall, they have been getting higher ratings than all but a few of the 14 new, highly publicized serialized dramas. The handful of serial successes include ABC's Brothers & Sisters, NBC's Heroes and CBS' Jericho, all of which have already been picked up for a full season by their networks.

While one new successful drama a year is not a bad batting average in the big league of prime-time network programming, the failures this fall are especially galling to network executives. Enticed by the young demographics that big-budget dramas such as ABC's Lost attracted last year, officials broke the bank in going for more of the same.

And much of the money is already spent. Pilot episodes for network dramas are particularly costly because they involve the building of production infrastructure from scratch. Seven pilots for new network dramas this fall cost more than $6 million each to produce, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times last month. Among that group was the pilot for Studio 60.

The longer a series runs, the more production costs are amortized. A quick cancellation like the one CBS gave Smith, a series starring Ray Liotta as the leader of a gang of high-stakes thieves, is especially painful to the network pocketbook. NBC is feeling the same pain with Kidnapped, a serialized drama about the abduction of a teenager from a wealthy Manhattan family, that was moved last month to a Saturday timeslot but will not continue beyond its original order of 13 episodes.

The numbers make it plain to see why NBC Chairman Bob Wright recently announced a shift from scripted dramas to reality programming during the 8 o'clock hour on weeknights.

"The audience just isn't there," he said, referring to expensive series such as Friday Night Lights, a critically acclaimed high school football drama that is drawing an even smaller audience than Studio 60.

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