Fiscal Woes Kill Decent Shows

Maybe it's the model, not the content

Two CBS shows are said to be short-timers. "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace," two cop dramas with strong ratings. Both were among the top 20 shows, season-to-date, but it's not enough to justify their continued expense. Shows like "Dancing with the Stars" are killing. The soccer-buff Anthony LaPaglia is getting creamed by the doughy spectacle that is Steve Wozniak.

"Dancing" showed up twice in the top five. Even so, CBS is subjugating Wozniak's ABC in overall weekly ratings. It appears to be doing so on the power of its dramas, which commanded 40 percent of the top 20 during the third week in March—more than any other single genre.

If shows like "Case" and "Trace" can't generate enough revenue to justify their existence, it would be nice to know why. LaPaglia probably isn't free, but he's also wonderful to watch as the hapless, trench-coated FBI guy ferreting out missing persons.

Is it that traditional television productions are rife with long-standing perks and procedures that have no place in the current economy? I really don't know. I do know there was a complete renovation and restoration of the flat down the hall from me to create a pilot that never made it to series.

My neighbors were mystified by the effort.

What about the support services, accommodations and catering? What about unions? Are there sacrosancts in TV productions that ultimately contribute to their sinking?

TV stations across the country are cost cutting like never before. Salaries are being rolled back, mandatory furloughs imposed and news operations combined. These same stations now have to pay the networks that carry the productions where no such similar cost cuts appear to be imposed.

Is it because networks don't need broadcast stations anymore? Network chiefs have talked about going straight to cable and DBS operators for carriage, they say, though that would seem a lousy bluff given that prime-time shows on broadcast networks outgun cable-only fare about 4-to-1 in ratings.

Perhaps guys like LaPaglia don't need to work for a living, but there you have the line-up for "Dancing with the Stars."

One has to wonder if the fiscal threats to scripted series aren't aggravated by the ratings system. Nielsen has scrambled to keep up with the proliferation of platforms, but out-of-home, mobile and Web aren't yet in the mix. Nielsen also recently shattered some of its own assumptions about age-related viewing behaviors. Likewise assumptions about buying patterns could be bogus as well. The key is really whether or not Wozniak fans are buying more cars, soap, stocks, shoes, rings and Cialis than LaPaglia's team.

The one certainty in TV today is that traditional revenue models are obsolete. It's a fact, we all know it, OK. Over at Ion, the scrappy phoenix formerly known as Pax, original movies are being created around advertising and sponsorship opportunities. Not exactly a highbrow approach, but certainly one that's realistic.

If LaPaglia's character on "Trace" answered cell phone calls from Sam Waterson shilling TD Ameritrades, his FBI guy might be schlepping around after missing people for another season or three.

Deborah McAdams
Senior Editor