Dramas, once the hot commodity in the TV biz, are turning into risky propositions. So far this season, the only hour-long show that looks like it has a solid future is Fox’s Ally McBeal — and no one’s really sure if that qualifies as a drama (even its producers submitted it to the Golden Globes as a comedy — and it won).
Among this year’s high-profile failures are ABC’s Timecop, C-16, Total Security, and Cracker; Fox’s The Visitor and 413 Hope St.; and NBC’s Sleepwalkers. As for the new dramas that remain on the air — CBS’ Brooklyn South and Michael Hayes, NBC’s Players, and ABC’s Nothing Sacred — none are exactly setting the world on fire. In fact, the controversial Sacred — which ABC just yanked for the entire February sweeps period — hasn’t been able to attract viewers in either its original Thursday slot or its current home on Saturdays (perhaps the producers should resort to letting Father Ray have an affair with a church intern).
Network execs and producers blame the genre’s ratings drought on the fact that many in this year’s batch were especially complex and demanding. Brooklyn South fields a whopping 11 characters; Michael Hayes has proven only slightly more upbeat than last year’s downer EZ Streets. South’s executive producer Steven Bochco says patience is the key: “I care about the show and believe in hanging with it a little longer. We’re finally figuring out who and what works.”
CBS TV president Leslie Moonves feels Bochco’s pain. “I think we’re all suffering from the fact that there aren’t a lot of new hits,” says Moonves, who attributes the problem partly to the number of options out there. “With six networks and all the cable channels introducing new programs in September it’s nearly impossible.” Concurs NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer: “It is more difficult than previous years. It’s tougher to get [viewers to] sample” hour-long shows.
Bucking the trend, The WB has rounded up an audience for its new Dawson’s Creek thanks to strong publicity and scheduling savvy. Tuesday night — formerly a wasteland for younger viewers — now has both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s to offer. Of course, even with those dramas’ solid (for The WB anyway) ratings, the ad revenues the shows take in aren’t nearly enough to cover their production costs.
Furthermore, as with sitcoms, good writing is hard to find. “In the old days,” says Moonves, “the writing staff of Mary Tyler Moore had 12 superstars. Now you’re lucky if you get a good writer on for the second year of a show before he jumps somewhere else for a $20 million deal.” $20 million? Anyone for a career change?
And So On
Carsey-Werner, producer of Roseanne and Cybill, may be adding another grande dame to its roster. Word is that Bette Midler has signed to do a sitcom for the company. No decisions have been made on a plot, but that hasn’t stopped the nets from whipping out their checkbooks. Sources say Midler is looking for a network commitment in the neighborhood of $20 millon…. A high-level CBS exec has confirmed that either this year or next there will be a Howard Stern late-night show to take on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. According to the exec, the last detail to be worked out — and it’s a doozy — is how much money Stern will receive.