Finding Success With the Post-Ratings Model

WGN America renewed Manhattan Oct. 14. The series, a lavishly produced drama set in Los Alamos in the 1940s, during the development of the first atomic bombs, drew critical praise but not breakout ratings. Its first-run telecasts averaged 420,000 viewers on Saturday nights, jumping to 1.2 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers (measuring live ratings plus seven days of playback). But Manhattan was also the subject of a unique subscription- video-on-demand deal with Hulu, announced the day after the series premiered in July, that made each episode available to Hulu Plus subscribers one day after its telecast on WGN America.

Deals that allow digital services to stream new episodes of a show within such a short window of time—and make more than a small number of episodes available to stream while the show is still in season—are rare, but increasingly less so. By shifting the economics of production toward the front end, such deals are impacting linear programmers’ decisions about which shows go to series and whether they are renewed. But how widespread the deals will become remains to be seen.

One week before WGN America ordered a second season of Manhattan, CBS renewed summer dramas Extant and Under the Dome, both subjects of uniquely structured deals with Amazon that allow the shows to be viewed by Amazon Prime members four days after initial broadcast. Next summer they will be joined on CBS by another drama, Zoo, whose series order from the linear network was announced one week after its streaming deal with Netflix.

Neither Under the Dome nor Extant appeared, based on ratings, to be a lock for renewal. In its second season, Under the Dome averaged a 2.7 live-plus-seven rating among adults 18- 49, down 27% from the previous summer, when the series, adapted from a Stephen King novel, was a surprise hit. Extant, also a science fiction series, this one starring Academy Award winner Halle Berry, failed to even register as one of the network’s top five shows this summer. It averaged a 1.7 live-plus-seven rating. But both shows, produced by CBS Television Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, had their Amazon deals going for them.

“They make the shows almost immediately profitable, as far as I can tell, at the point where the show is first premiering,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming, Katz Media Group.

CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, in remarks made in July at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Summit in Aspen, fell short of confirming Carroll’s assessment or teasing renewals for Under the Dome and Extant, but just barely.

“It’s almost like the rating on CBS is secondary,” Moonves said. “The shows are successful before they even get to the air.”

Walking away from Under the Dome or Extant would have meant leaving money on the table. The model is different from that employed with traditionally structured series for which lucrative off-network syndication and SVOD usually arrive only after a show has been on for several seasons and built up a substantial library.

“It’s not waiting to see what the aftermarket is,” Carroll said. “The aftermarket and the market are, to a degree, the same.”

It’s Now Or Never

A show that delivers cash at the beginning of its run rather than several years in sounds at first like a bandwagon that everyone would want to jump aboard. But so far, when it comes to broadcasters, experimentation with such deals has been limited to CBS and its summer event dramas. Such shows, thanks to their chapter-like narratives, play poorly in traditional syndication, and their short seasons make them unlikely to ever build a library large enough to draw the same interest as, say, CBS’ procedural dramas and their hundreds of episodes do.

Rather than opening up a new model for all kinds of shows, up-front streaming deals appear to make a particular type of show, the kind traditionally found on cable, financially feasible for broadcast. (Under the Dome, it’s worth noting, was originally developed for Showtime.)

For WGN America, the Manhattan streaming deal serves a different purpose. The series is a coproduction of Skydance, WGN parent company Tribune and Lionsgate—the last of which produced Mad Men with AMC. Like AMC was when Mad Men launched in 2007, WGN America is attempting to rebrand itself through original scripted programming. With Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC benefitted from audiences finding its early original series on digital service Netflix, then coming to AMC’s linear broadcasts in subsequent seasons. In an attempt to similarly drive viewers from streaming to linear, the Hulu streams of Manhattan include promotions for the linear broadcasts on WGN America.

Whether that strategy works for WGN America, and whether CBS can continue to tolerate lower-than-expected ratings for shows delivering dollars up front, are questions yet to be answered. But if their plans succeed, expect them to be emulated elsewhere.

“Anything that continues to be successful continues to happen,” Carroll said.