Monday, September 24, 2007

TV shows getting ambitious

Budgets soar as biz copes with big scope

The broadcast networks are getting an early start this year on one of the rituals of the fall: Chaos and panic on new shows.

As the 2007-08 season kicks off this week, there's already been a surprising amount of sturm and drang, production shutdowns and shouting matches around town. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, every unhappy show is unhappy in its own way -- but there are some common threads that explain the angst.

Call it the "Lost"-"Heroes" effect. After those shows became surprise hits (for ABC and NBC, respectively), the major nets have been encouraged to invest in ambitious sci-fi/fantasy skeins or to incorporate supernatural elements into conventional shows. Shows with a lot of moving parts (f/x, prosthetics, special film processing techniques) create many more opportunities to rack up red ink and production delays.

The larger issue is that the size and scope of high-end broadcast TV fare has grown inordinately as networks feel the pressure to make their shows stand above the plethora of options on cable. That means using miniatures, cranes, elaborate location shoots and greenscreen work. It's the movie-ization of the smallscreen -- witness the parade of film directors and producers tackling pilots these days -- yet there is a kind of pervasive denial among execs about the kind of coin that it actually takes to produce these episodes.

"The demands on shows, especially the one-hour drama, are so huge right now that it's very hard not to buckle under the expectations," says one production exec.

Production costs for a high-end scripted drama series now range from $2.7 million to $3.3 million per seg; single-camera half-hour comedies range from $1.6 million to more than $2 million, depending on cast size and the level of star salaries, according to industry sources. Budget overruns happen every year on new shows; the problem seems magnified in recent years because budgets have ballooned so quickly.

"The biggest problem studios and networks face is making sure that everybody -- execs, writers, talent -- has clear expectations of what we need to manage these kinds of productions," says a veteran studio production exec. "There are often disconnects between needs and expectations, and that's where the offscreen drama begins."

Another exec says it's essential "to set a realistic bar" on the budget.

"Otherwise, you end up spending dumb money. You spend more money reshooting, hiring other crews, adding storylines."

New shows that have grappled with production issues, cast and/or showrunner changes include ABC's "Cavemen" and "Big Shots," CBS' "Viva Laughlin" and "Moonlight" and Fox's "K-Ville" (which opened to respectable ratings last week).

But by far, the newcomers that have generated the most chatter and strife behind the scenes are NBC's "Bionic Woman," from Universal Media Studios, and ABC's "Pushing Daisies," from Warner Bros. Television.

Both networks are banking heavily on the ambitious, fx-heavy dramas. The stakes are even higher for "Daisies," because it is the best-received frosh of the fall crop, generating adoring ink from crix for the pilot's distinctive concept and look. ABC has given the show the kind of aggressive marketing push it showered a few seasons back on "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." NBC has funneled much of its fall marketing budget to letting America know that "The Bionic Woman" is back on Wednesday nights.

Amid reports that scripts were coming in late, and that the budget for the second seg was approaching $4 million, "Bionic" earlier this month sacked its showrunner, Glen Morgan. Given the lateness of the transition -- "Bionic" preems Sept. 26 -- there was no stampede among experienced hands to take on the project despite U's earnest recruiting effort. (The studio wound up bringing in Jason Katims, exec producer of the NBC/UMS critical darling "Friday Night Lights," as a consultant. He's said to be focusing on getting scripts on track, while "Bionic" exec producer David Eick is onset clearing up production problems.)

In spite of its struggles, Peacock execs feel the time is ripe for a revival of the dormant U-owned property, about a woman who is part robot, and that the show could be a big franchise player for the conglom in overseas markets.

NBC learned an important lesson last year when "Heroes" hit some expensive speed bumps in its early going. "You've got to spend the money," says a top NBC U exec. "If you think it has potential, you don't do yourself any good by pulling back when there's problems. It's now a business of big bets."

In addition to NBC's experience on "Heroes," many observers point to how ABC and its ABC Studios sibling dealt with the launch three years ago of high-priced dramas "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." All three shows turned into massive hits but they all had their share of behind-the-scenes production issues prior to launch.

"People like to say they threw money at the problem, but it worked," says an exec at a rival studio. "That year was a turning point."

By many accounts, the problems on "Daisies" fall into the gulf between needs and expectations for a show with highly ambitious fx, image-coloring and -processing requirements. It is no secret in the biz that ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson is unhappy with the roughly $2.65 million per-episode base production budget Warners has allocated for the show, billed as an adult fairy tale about a man with the ability to bring dead things back to life.

The "Daisies" pilot, directed by feature helmer Barry Sonnenfeld, who is also an exec producer along with series creator Bryan Fuller, has drawn raves for its camerawork and nifty production touches.

But Sonnenfeld had studio brass ranting when he went three days over the shooting sked for the show's second episode. After a tussle with Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth, Sonnenfeld was relieved of his duties on that seg and another one he was set to direct. (Tensions have reportedly simmered down again, and Sonnenfeld says he remains involved with the show.)

Beyond that scuffle, it's understood ABC has complained subsequent segs are not consistent with the look and feel of the pilot because of budgetary issues. Warners execs are quick to note that the studio responded to ABC's concerns by hiking the budget from its initial $2.5 million per-seg base.

ABC has given "Daisies" a so-called premium license fee of $1.65 million per seg. Network sources say they just want a show that captures the distinctive look and feel of the pilot. Warner Bros. insiders counter that the budget on paper is one thing; the real costs of the first few segs have been in the range of $3 million per seg, with some of the overruns absorbed by ABC.

Warner Bros.' budget-consciousness this year has been much discussed in TV circles the past few weeks. It's understood that ABC also is not happy with the studio's handling of another new drama it has on the net, "Big Shots," about four high-powered male friends, and that CBS has questioned some of Warners' budgetary decisions on "Moonlight," the vampire-detective drama the studio is fielding for the Eye. Studio sources counter that "Moonlight" was picked up by CBS based on a 10-minute short presentation reel, and thus there were many issues that had to be hammered out before the show began episodic production.

For sure there's an element of he said/she said carping to the Warner Bros.-ABC spat (which comes on the heels the two companies coming together on a complex, precedent-setting agreement that calls for ABC to grant Warners broad digital rights to new shows it produces for the network).

Warners has long positioned itself as benefiting from its status of being nonaligned with a Big Four network -- it and Sony Pictures TV are the only major TV player in Hollywood without a sib broadcast net -- because it has the freedom to sell shows to every network, aided by its roster of heavy-hitter writers and producers (Jerry Bruckheimer, J.J. Abrams, John Wells, etc.) whose projects command bidding wars and top license fees.

But conventional wisdom in the biz is that Warners simply doesn't have the same incentive to spend freely on "Daisies" -- as NBC is on "Bionic" or as ABC did last season on another troubled drama, "Brothers and Sisters" -- because the studio is not aligned with the network and won't share in the immediate windfall from advertising sales if "Daisies" is a hit.

Warners execs privately dispute the suggestion that their budgets or cost-containment efforts are more stringent than other major shops. "Daisies" is a unique case, they say, given its unusual needs.

Rolling the dice on a new series is a bigger gamble for studios than ever before, especially at a time when studio execs are fretting about how the new digital-world-order of viewers having insta-access to TV repeats via iTunes downloads, DVRs and DVD box sets will eat into the long-term profit potential of shows in traditional syndication. Heck, media execs aren't even sure there'll be a traditional TV syndication marketplace in five years time.

Add to all of this the specter of possible work-stoppage in Hollywood next year, and it's a perfect storm that has studio brass reaching for the Maalox.

"There are a lot of ambitious (show) concepts this year," one network exec says. "They're more difficult targets to hit, and you've got a lot of new showrunners at the plate. It's more of a challenge."

Of course, despite all the preseason hand-wringing, it's important not to get too Chicken Little about the whole situation.

One observer recalls that four years ago, both "Hawaii" and "Lost" shot on location on the island at the same time. While "Lost" was plagued with problems and reports of huge cost overruns, "Hawaii" was probably one of the smoothest-run productions that season.

Viewers didn't care. They quickly rejected NBC's surf-and-sand romp and turned "Lost" into an instant hit.

"Sometimes, none of this matters," one vet says. "For all we know, 'Bionic Woman' could go on to be the biggest hit of the year."