‘Roots’ reboot joins ‘Extant’ as networks revive miniseries
Actress Halle Berry leaves the hearing room after testifying before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety for a bill that would limit the ability of paparazzi to photograph the children of celebrities and public figures at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. At the left is Sen. Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angles, the author of the bill.(AP Photo/Steve Yeater)
TV viewers will see a lot of Oscar winner Halle Berry at an unusual time of year when CBS airs the 13-week sci-fi drama Extant starting in July.
Instead of introducing the series during the traditional TV season that runs from September to May, CBS will air Extant during what used to be rerun time – when school is out, families are on holiday and there’s less interest in TV.
Those days are gone. With more viewers watching on demand, on Netflix or tuning in to cable shows that debut year-round, TV programmers are ordering short “event series,” such as Extant and a planned revival of Roots, the famous miniseries from the 1970s. They’re hiring big stars to draw audiences and advertising and break up the daily TV routine, just as shows like Holocaust and Shogun did years ago.
“It makes sense on a lot of different levels,” said Todd Gordon, an executive vice president at Magna Global, the media-buying arm of the advertising company Interpublic Group of Cos. “You can attract different talent for a 13-episode run than for a full season. We all have busy lives. I don’t have the endurance for a 20-episode season.”
The revival of the short series is evident in New York this week at the so-called upfronts, where broadcast and cable networks are presenting their shows to advertisers for advanced commitments.
Fox, which released its 2014-2015 lineup Monday, unveiled two, 10-episode series: Gracepoint, based on the British TV murder-mystery Broadchurch, and Wayward Pines, from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed The Sixth Sense.
The network, part of 21st Century Fox Inc., is airing 24: Live Another Day, a 12-episode revival of the action-espionage series featuring Kiefer Sutherland that ran for eight seasons through 2010. That series is certain to be profitable with airings on Fox and Amazon, according to Chase Carey, chief executive officer of 21st Century Fox.
Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly said short-run shows with definitive endings will help the network draw audiences year-round.
“We’re making Fox a 24/7, 365-day experience,” Reilly said at his presentation to advertisers.
NBC, part of Comcast Corp., touted two new short series at its presentation Monday, including A.D., a Biblical epic from reality TV producer Mark Burnett that opens with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
“How’s that for a pilot?” Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said at the event. NBC is leading the prime-time ratings in 18-to-49 this season for the first time in a decade, with help from professional football, the Winter Olympics, The Voice and Blacklist.
Conventional television faces growing competition from alternative programmers such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube.
Prime-time audiences for the big four broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, are down 1.7 percent this season in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers target, according to Nielsen data. The big four have lost 21 percent of those viewers since 2010.
Cable audiences are also shrinking. Prime-time viewers at the 35 most-watched cable networks in that age group have declined 3.2 percent this TV season, Nielsen data show.
Upfront ad commitments for the broadcast networks may be flat this year at $9.1 billion, with a drop in volume countering higher prices, said Ben Swinburne, a Morgan Stanley analyst in New York. He predicts spending at cable networks will rise 4 percent to $11.2 billion, with higher prices exceeding a dip in unit sales.
“We don’t expect there to be spending growth this year,” said Christopher Geraci, president of national broadcast buying at OMD in New York, part of Omnicom Group Inc. “We see more dollars moving online and following the viewership of video.”
While online viewing competes with traditional TV, new forms of distribution can cut production costs for traditional networks, according to Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.’s chief executive officer. That’s given some programmers confidence to skip the traditional one-hour pilot, an expensive trial balloon, and proceed to making multiepisode dramas.
CBS’s deal for Extant, a Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi featuring Berry as an astronaut trying to reconnect with her family, and the second season of last summer’s Under the Dome, were financed in part by Amazon, which is releasing the shows online for customers of its Prime service.
Hit shows in the summer can be used to promote new ones in the fall, Moonves told investors on a Thursday conference call.
“Advertisers now view us as a 12-month-a-year programming machine,” he said.
Cable networks, which pioneered year-round programming, are also producing more short-run programs.
A+E Networks, owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp., is working on a remake of Roots, the 1977 miniseries that set the standard for short dramatic programs and ranked as one of the most-watched in history.
The company last year aired the miniseries Bonnie & Clyde on three of its channels, A&E, History and Lifetime, attracting almost 10 million viewers on its first night.
The company’s networks pool their marketing dollars to promote their special projects, said Nancy Dubuc, chief executive officer.
“The entire company is going to focus on Roots,” Dubuc said April 30 at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. “That is event television.”