Reversing the Curse of Serialized Dramas

Much of the talk at the recent Television Critics Association press tour circled around a slew of serialized dramas that will hit network air this fall. From ABC's Invasion to NBC's Surface to CBS' Threshold, the networks are hoping they can tell stories compelling enough to keep viewers following along every week.

And although serialized shows can be a challenge in their first network run, they have historically faced even tougher battles in syndication—part of the reason most recent dramas attempt to produce closed-ended episodes every week. But as buzz-worthy hits 24 and Alias hit syndication this fall, Twentieth TV and Buena Vista intend to reverse that trend.

Both shows are coming off successful seasons and critical acclaim on Fox and ABC, respectively, but story arcs on each often run for several episodes, if not an entire season. That has typically spelled trouble in syndication.

“I've never had a meeting about selling a serialized drama when the buyer didn't have tremendous concerns about the format,” says one syndication executive. “You just always run into a brick wall as a result of the track record of these types of shows.”

That's one reason the two shows commanded relatively small license fees. A&E paid around $250,000 per episode for 24, and TNT ponied up about $200,000 per for Alias, according to industry insiders. (By comparison, Spike TV paid $1.35 million per episode of non-serial Without a Trace in fall 2003.) Alias and 24 were sold in all-barter deals to local stations.

Nonetheless, 24 seems well positioned to challenge the trend when its first season debuts in syndication Oct. 2 in 97% of the country. Twentieth TV, which produces the series, can build on a strong 2004-05 season: 24 enjoyed a 20% ratings jump from a year ago, winning its Monday 9 p.m. time slot for the year in the male 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 demos.

“The last season got a lot of people hooked,” says Twentieth TV President Bob Cook, “so we are hoping they'll jump at the chance to catch up with what they missed from the beginning.”

To help combat the challenge of the serialized format, 24 will be double-run in most markets; the same episode will be seen on both Saturday and Sunday nights. “Running it twice a weekend is a good move,” says another syndication exec. “They'll have to promote the heck out of it, but the goal is to find a new audience, and running it twice makes sense to help them follow the story.”

Buena Vista, which produces Alias, won't comment on its off-net launch, but it faces a similar challenge to Twentieth's with 24. Cleared in 98% of the country, the much-talked-about Alias debuts in weekend broadcast syndication on Sept. 19 and then on TNT Sept. 24, where it will run daily at 6 p.m. ET.

Early on, Alias had complex plotlines, but they've been somewhat simplified of late. And both the show and its star, Emmy-nominated Jennifer Garner, had a good year: It logged its most-watched season, averaging 10.3 million viewers, and she had a highly publicized marriage to Ben Affleck. So the show heads to syndication with buzz, which it—and 24—will need to overcome the curse of serialized dramas.