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Self-Contained Dramas To Dominate ’07

Although a flurry of serialized dramas in the mold of Lost and 24 are premiering this season, it’s the traditional, closed-ended formats that will likely rule the 2007-08 season. Network development executives say they’re seeing a big change in the drama pilots being pitched for next year. The 20 or so drama scripts on NBC’s 2007-08 plate, for example, lack the serialized elements that characterize many of this fall’s new series, such as ABC’s The Nine and NBC’s Kidnapped.

“Lots of drama writers and studios are thinking that, now, when the networks are hitting the tipping point on serialization, they should be looking to make more closed-ended procedurals,” says Katherine Pope, executive VP of NBC Entertainment.

Over at ABC, it’s “more self-contained storylines,” says Francie Calfo, executive VP of development and current programs, in the pitches and four drama scripts that have earned commitments.

The trend could represent belated recognition by studios and producers that the big money continues to lie in syndication. Many networks and content providers have been aiming their product toward on-demand media like iPods, home to such serialized hits as ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Lost. But that business is in its infancy and pales in comparison with the massive paydays for syndication.

Off-network buyers are willing to pay more for closed-ended dramas, such as the Law & Order and CSI franchises, which can fetch $1 million-$2 million per episode. In contrast, Housewives recently received $500,000 per episode from Lifetime, since reruns of shows demanding ongoing viewer commitment traditionally perform poorly in syndication.

For that matter, the reruns don’t do much better on the networks. Housewives, for instance, has averaged a 1.7 rating/5 share in adults 18-49, ranking 73rd overall in the key demo, through the first 11 weeks of this summer.

Serialized dramas exploded on network fall schedules after the success in recent years of such series as Prison Break and Lost. While the glut has led to a shift in tactics on the part of producers and studios, one or two hits this fall could change the equation.

Pope says NBC is “pretty well aware” of what it has in terms of drama by this point each year. But since all the networks have embraced more year-round development, another serialized concept could still potentially emerge for next year.

While ABC is aiming for more “balance” between serialized and self-contained on its schedule, says Calfo, she insists that the network is still in the hunt for the next big drama idea—no matter how it is structured. “If I was pitched The Nine today, I would buy it in the room,” she says of ABC’s serialized drama about hostages in a bank robbery.

For his part, Fox Executive VP Craig Erwich has not seen a big difference in the types of drama pitches received at his network, which has enjoyed great success with serialized formats, such as Prison Break. Fox has completed about 70% of its drama script commitments for next year, he says.

CBS and The CW declined to comment.

The avalanche of serialized shows, coupled with a prolonged drought of successful comedies, has greatly reduced the number of sitcoms on the fall schedules. The desperate need for new comedies has led the networks to spend more money earlier to secure scripts that can be turned into pilots. Traditionally, they have waited until October.

“We’re definitely reading a lot more comedy spec scripts,” Calfo says. “Writers see an opportunity for one show to put a spark back into the comedy arena.”

Because of its success with offbeat comedies My Name Is Earl and The Office, NBC—struggling to get out of fourth place—has been getting more non-traditional pitches. It already has 15 quirky “big-idea” sitcoms in development between new material and projects rolled over from last season, says Pope: “Nothing is sacred or off-limits.”

The NBC list includes a script commitment to feature writer Dan Fogelman (Cars, The 12th Man) for a show called Lipshitz Saves the World, about a 15-year-old nerd who lives up to the title.

Aside from some perennial development trends, like heaven and hell and the occult, network execs say no new themes have emerged among nascent development projects. “Normally, there is one summer movie or book that births lots of development,” Fox’s Erwich says. “Last year, it was Wedding Crashers. I haven’t seen that this year.”