TV TIME: Cable vs. Network Budgets - Alan Sepinwall's mailbag.
Critic Alan Sepinwall had a great piece in The Star Ledger about Television budgets. Its posted below.
Letters, I get letters, and in the latest mailbag, I have questions about the relative cost of network vs. cable dramas, ABC's short-lived summer soap "Defying Gravity," a creative rebound for "Grey's Anatomy" and more.
On the cheap
Dear Alan: What is the cost difference between network shows and cable shows? It seems to me USA keeps pumping out hits lately. I know the ratings aren't great when compared with popular prime-time network shows, but if these shows are considered hits in their smaller viewing blocks, what if they got moved to a more friendly time and place?
Basically, is the cost such a difference where "Monk" can last eight seasons and be considered a huge success and shows like "Southland" make 10 episodes and are done?
— Danny Applegate
Alan says: I asked the producer on a scripted drama on a successful basic cable network, and who has experience in network TV. He said, "Our budget is $1.6 (million) to $1.8 (million) per episode. And we shoot in seven days. A network show shoots at least eight days and typically has a budget of close to $3 million. So it is very significant. You have to do more with less."
And because the shows cost so much less, the threshold for success is much lower on cable vs. network. (Cable networks also benefit from a dual revenue stream, where they get money from both advertisers and from cable companies, whereas the broadcast nets get only the ad dollars.)
Would some basic cable hits get bigger numbers on a broadcast platform? Almost certainly, in the same way that a Big Four network show's ratings go down if it moves to a smaller network or cable. But cable channels don't like to give up valuable assets, even to broadcast corporate siblings, so we tend to see these shows on a network only when they're in reruns.
And speaking of "Southland," though NBC canceled it without airing a single episode of season two, TNT has picked up the cop drama. It'll start showing the seven episodes of season one on Jan. 12, followed by the six episodes of season two that were produced before NBC pulled the plug. If the ratings are good, there's always a chance TNT could order more — with the caveat, of course, that the budget would almost certainly be much lower.
Astronauts in love
Dear Alan: I know "Defying Gravity" was pretty much an epic flop in the ratings, but the last episode ABC aired months ago left a major cliffhanger. From what I've read, there are five additional episodes that ABC did not air, but were recorded and broadcast in Canada. Any hope, for the space nerds like me, that ABC will air these in "burn-off theater"? If not, is there any place one can watch them online, or are there any plans to release a DVD set with all episodes?
— Matt Fowler
Alan says: There's been talk for a while that the remaining episodes of the summer drama might turn up online at Hulu or iTunes, but that hasn't happened yet. A DVD set of the entire first season is scheduled to come out on Jan. 19.
Dear Alan: Just an FYI: "Grey's Anatomy" was absolutely terrific last (week), if you get a chance to watch it. That's two in a row! It probably won't come back in the regular rotation of reviews for you, but it might be worth mentioning.
— Erin Payton
Alan says: An interesting thing has happened with "Grey's" lately. While Ellen Pompeo has been on quasi-maternity leave (limiting Meredith to scenes where she's in bed), and while Katherine Heigl has been off filming a movie (while Izzie got fired from the hospital and left her husband), "Grey's" has focused less on romantic angst and wacky comedy and more on straight-up medical drama. And while the sex and humor were what distinguished "Grey's" from other hospital shows, they've always been the most creatively volatile parts of the show, where the more traditional medical stories rarely falter.
Hopefully Shonda Rhimes and company are looking at what worked so well in the previous few weeks and keep that in mind once Pompeo and Heigl return to full duty.
Leno at 10: Yay?
Dear Alan: I love (NBC scheduling Jay Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week): Now, I can DVR both "Law & Order"s at the new earlier times and watch them at 10 without the commercials. It is kind of like a retail store cutting square footage. Sales are bound to drop; the next step is to go out of business. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, the ultimate downside is that I will have no "L&O"s to watch when NBC TV folds its tent!
— Harry Murphy, Montclair
Alan says: And this is another reason NBC argued for "The Jay Leno Show." The ratings for many 10 p.m. shows have suffered the last couple of years because many viewers now use that hour the way you do: to watch shows DVR'ed earlier in the evening.
(Speaking of Leno and DVRs, NBC boasted that Jay's show would be "DVR-proof," in that no one would want to watch it a day or two later, and would therefore have to watch it live, with commercials. But recent Nielsen data about DVR usage is suggesting that being DVR-proof is not a good thing. Where other shows get an audience boost from DVR viewership — and where the data, surprisingly, shows that many people who watch shows on DVR are actually watching the commercials — Jay gets no boost.)