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Strike Deadline Looms, But TV’s Scripted Peak May Have Already Passed

Variety logo Variety 5/2/2017 Daniel Holloway

A&E’s “Bates Motel” was prime peak TV. The drama, which ended a five-season run with last week’s finale, had all the vital elements of the series that have typified TV’s golden age: a top-flight showrunner (Carlton Cuse), critical acclaim (“splendid central performances,” said Variety), and stars who migrated from movies in search of meatier roles (Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore). It was an ambitious step into scripted programming for A&E. But it was not a successful one.

The cable channel last week revealed that it would abandon its scripted aspirations, shifting resources to the unscripted programming with which it has long been identified. The move follows similar steps taken this year at channels such as WGN America and MTV, which have very publicly waved their own white flags at scripted competitors. With a possible writers’ strike looming, programmers may soon have the opportunity to rethink expensive scripted programming strategies. In some corners, they are already doing so.

“There are more and more choices for viewers,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive VP and head of programming for A&E. “There are streaming nets and DVRs. There are more and more choices every hour of every day with devices. So people should just do what they’re best at.”

For A&E, that means leaning into unscripted with documentary-style reality series such as “60 Days In” and the relaunch of the “Biography” franchise.

“It is a very competitive landscape, and ‘Bates’ is a refreshingly unique project that cut through with an auteured vision,” Bryant says. “But we never found that true companion show that broke through the way ‘Bates’ had in that same way. And A&E really has the heritage of prowess in non-fiction programming.”

According to FX Networks research, the number of scripted series on broadcast, cable, and streaming TV has more than doubled since 2009. It was FX CEO John Landgraf who, citing that data, declared this the era of “peak TV” at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2015.

But since then, as comedies and dramas have multiplied across television, cable and broadcast — which for years drove that growth — have begun to reverse course.

In 2016, according to FX, there were 454 scripted original series — up from 420 the year prior, and a massive increase from 210 in 2009. But all growth in the most recent year came from streaming services. The number of streaming scripted originals doubled from 46 in 2015 to 92 in 2016. Over the same period, the number of broadcast scripted originals slid from 187 to 181 and basic-cable series from 150 to 145. Both declines were the first since Netflix began tracking total series counts in 2009.

“Cable has gradually embraced more and more scripted fare, in part because there have been huge successes here and there, but a lot of cable scripted stuff has not really justified its cost in ratings terms,” says David Lyle, president of unscripted-producer trade organization Pact US and former CEO of National Geographic Channels. “Cable channels may well find or rediscover that unscripted entertainment is quick to commission and a good deal more cost efficient than the scripted fare.”

A typical hour of scripted drama costs $2.5-3.5 million to produce for broadcast, $1.8-2.5 million for cable. The most ambitious work can cost far more. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” costs roughly $10 million per episode. A typical hour of reality programming of the kind Lyle used to commission for National Geographic, by comparison, costs $400,000-$500,000.

As ratings trend down across linear television, breakout shows become harder to make. Renewed and canceled series can be separated by less than a ratings point. Broadcast TV has developed two bona fide hits in the last three development cycles — Fox’s “Empire” and NBC’s “This Is Us.” On cable, meanwhile, depressed ratings and a crowded marketplace have made it difficult for networks such as AMC — which still boasts the highest-rated scripted show on television in the 18-49 demo with “The Walking Dead” — to generate buzz for would-be successors to dramas such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” that kick-started the peak-TV era.

Facing a scripted glut, some programmers are turning to unscripted. At Viacom, scripted development has been shifted toward Comedy Central and the soon-to-launch Paramount Network, while other networks such as MTV have been given orders to refocus on reality programming that targets their core audiences.

“We had a lot of scripted projects that didn’t resonate with the brand overall or connect to the viewers from our biggest reality shows,” MTV, VH1 and Logo president Chris McCarthy told Variety in February. “Going forward at all of our channels we need to think, ‘Here’s our super fan. How do we serve them from a live (TV) perspective, from a scripted and from a reality perspective?’”

On broadcast, the success of primetime game shows such as ABC’s “Match Game” and “Celebrity Family Feud” has sparked a trend. Since January, the Big Four broadcasters have ordered nine new unscripted series.

“I think we’re at the start of an unscripted resurgence, with some fresh shows that are on point tonally speaking,” says David Broome, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Ultimate Beastmaster,” the company’s first unscripted effort. “Coming out of the election and the drama from all of the ongoing politics, I think fun, feel-good fare is perfect right now.”

That resurgence could get a shot on the arm should WGA members go on strike after their contract with producers runs out at midnight Tuesday morning. Network executives have for weeks been gaming out strike scenarios, looking at what unscripted series could have their orders extended or be quickly put into production should a strike last long enough to interfere with drama and comedy production.

“One of the things about unscripted television is the lead time or development time from ‘Yes, we want to go’ to getting it on air might be three months,” says Lyle. “The same development process in the scripted world, would be hard pressed to be within a year. The unscripted world can compensate pretty quickly.”

That ability to compensate, already an important commodity, will become even more valuable in the event of a strike.

“Linear TV has to have a product on air,” Lyle says.

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