Having finally solved their comedy crisis, the networks may be about to face a drama drought. Network executives are cheering the launch of several promising new fall sitcoms, such as Fox's New Girl, CBS' 2 Broke Girls and ABC's Last Man Standing. "The story of the fall season is comedy," says Jerry Bruckheimer TV president Jonathan Littman. "Comedy is back, no question about it."
But the outlook is less giddy on the drama front. A handful of new hour-long shows (Fox's Terra Nova, ABC's Revenge, CBS' Person of Interest) are doing OK, but none are generating heavy buzz or out-of-the-box hit ratings. Meanwhile, the networks continue to see their 10 p.m. time slots — traditionally the home for their most important dramas —erode due to cable competition and DVR usage in the hour.
Couple that with the ratings declines of aging veterans like Grey's Anatomy, House, CSI and Law & Order: SVU, all of which are in the twilight of their runs, and it's probably time for the networks to rethink what a broadcast TV drama looks like.
With viewers gravitating toward more laughs, one studio source says the networks are developing fewer dramas for next season. According to that studio's internal report, by this time last year approximately 230 drama scripts had been purchased at the five broadcast networks; this year, that number stands at 170 projects — a 26 percent drop.
Even drama producers are looking longingly at comedy. Glee and American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy just sold a half-hour sitcom project to NBC. And comedy writers who dabbled in drama when sitcoms were on the outs have returned to their roots. Former Everybody Loves Raymond producer Mike Royce, who co-created TNT's hour-long comedic drama Men of a Certain Age, is now back developing sitcoms — and his bosses at 20th Century Fox TV are thrilled. "When I went into development this year, I got the sense they would be happier if I was doing comedy — and that's what I'm doing."
Bones executive producer Hart Hanson says he's relieved to be sitting out this development season as he focuses on launching spin-off The Finder. "I think about this all the time," he says of the fate of network dramas. "The networks are trying to be adventurous and trying to figure out where they stand compared to cable. On cable you've got more latitude with subject matter, language, sex, violence and reality." (Several broadcast drama producers have gravitated toward cable, such as ER's John Wells, now behind Showtime's Shameless and TNT's Southland, among other shows, and thrived.)
Hanson says it's tough to compete with those kind of realistic cable dramas, which is why he focuses on being "funnier, weirder, quirkier than actual day-to-day reality" on Bones. "That's me trying to contend with what it means to be on a network."
But as network execs look to add more cable-style drama to their mix, Hanson warns that those shows might not have staying power. "The thing that will get a network head to buy your series is the very thing that will keep the series from going a long time," he says. "The want a kind of hook or complication that might give you huge problems two or three years in." A show like Breaking Bad works best in limited spurts on AMC, and probably couldn't sustain itself over a full 22-episode season, he says.
TV is a cyclical business, and this isn't the first time the networks have had to reinvent the drama genre. In the late 1970s, dramas struggled to crack the top 10 as sitcoms like Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company ruled — until Dallas came along and ushered in an age of primetime soaps. The same thing happened in the early 1990s, as dramas had been pushed aside by dominant sitcoms Roseanne, Home Improvement and Murphy Brown — until NYPD Blue and ER showed up, bringing a realism and edge to primetime drama.
Viewers were bound to tire of the drama genre's hits and multiple copycats. For much of the last decade, procedurals like CSI and Law & Order: SVU, soaps like Desperate Housewives and a few genre-specific titles like Lost garnered big audiences. But over time, those shows and their inevitable clones began to wear thin. Now, NCIS is still a megahit; but beyond that, is the future of the primetime drama still in procedurals? Soaps? Cops? Lawyers? Remakes? Period pieces? Family ensembles? Special effects? Musicals?
FX president John Landgraf says the broadcast networks are a bit hemmed in by the fact that their audiences are looking for comfort food. "They can succeed with a variety of comfort food shows if they're executed well," he says. "But I think it's harder to stand out with that kind of programming." Given the comedy comeback, one broadcast exec thinks his network and its rivals need to focus on lighter, more comedic dramas.
Littman believes the networks have learned their lesson from the comedy collapse, which came from the oversaturation of too many shows that looked alike (such as all of those Friends rip-offs). The CSI and Lost clones are on the wane, as the broadcast networks go broader with their development. They may not all work, but at least this fall's new crop of dramas don't all look alike. (That also goes for midseason's unconventional entries like NBC's musical Smash and ABC's thriller The River, some of which could still turn into big hits, giving broadcast drama its needed boost before the season is done.)
One agent says the networks' drama dilemma may wind up becoming one of the major themes of this year's TV season. "I think it's more about the pendulum of consumer taste," he says. "Cable has pushed drama so far forward that the networks have to define what broad-based dramatic entertainment means to them and their audiences."
But Littman believes drama won't ever hit the kind of dire straits that comedy faced for much of the last decade: "It was such a spectacular flame out of an entire genre. I don't personally feel the same way about drama," he says. ABC executive vice president Jeff Bader agrees: "Even when comedy has been huge, there have always been dramas that have broken out at the same time."
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