For years, TV networks have been striving to expand the scope of their original programming offerings. AMC started off with miniseries before adding scripted dramas and then unscripted series. Similarly, USA, for years known for its hourlong (mostly light) dramas, in the past few years added unscripted and half-hour comedy series. Drama network TNT started airing reality series. Meanwhile, a slew of networks known for reality fare expanded into scripted including A&E, Bravo, E! and We tv. After decades of limiting their primetime entertainment lineups to comedy and drama series, the broadcast networks 15 years ago started adding reality series to the mix.
But something interesting started to happen over the last few months. USA pulled away from scripted comedy series to focus on its core drama programming. The network held onto then-upcoming half-hour series Benched and Denis Leary’s paramedic comedy Sirens, but virtually all comedy projects in development were released. For now, the network is sticking with another recent slate addition, reality series, on the heels of the breakout success of Chrisley Knows Best, though the network has been without a head of alternative programming since Heather Olander left for sibling Syfy in August. A replacement is expected to be named soon.
At the same time USA started phasing out comedy, AMC pulled out of unscripted series to focus on its drama brand. The network kept only The Walking Dead hit aftershow Talking Dead and Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men, with any other unscripted production or development discontinued, including Season 2 of Game Of Arms, which shut down filming.
A&E scaled back its drama efforts to refocus on its bread-and-butter unscripted brand that had yielded such mega hits as Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. The network’s head of scripted programming Tana Nugent Jamieson in August transitioned to a senior role at sibling A+E Studios. A&E has cancelled two of its three existing scripted series, The Glades and Longmire, leaving Bates Motel as its only returning drama. It will be joined by the upcoming remake of The Returned (both from executive producer Carlton Cuse), but there is nothing in the pipeline as A&E did not order a single scripted pilot in 2014 vs. half-dozen reality ones.
Faced with increased competition and forever changed viewing patterns where people no longer set the remote on a channel and keep it there and barely watch anything live — instead opting for DVR and VOD viewing — nets find it more and more important to stand out and have a clear identity. It no longer pays off to be always broad and offer a little something for everyone.
Even the longtime drive to increase hours of original programming per week has slowed down and sometimes has been reversed. AMC, known for its signature drama Sunday lineup, launched an all-unscripted Thursday night in 2012 and announced a third original night on Saturday a few month later with the move of Western drama Hell On Wheels there. The network retreated from Thursday in 2013 and will soon do the same on Saturday as the upcoming fifth season of Hell on Wheels will be its last. It will test the waters on Monday with Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul.
USA has dropped Sunday and Friday as nights of original programming while continuing to air its own series on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (The network has WWE Raw on Monday). Even the 800 lb guerrilla in the cable space, HBO, which was first to challenge broadcasters with top-level series, has kept its original scripted shows contained on one night, Sunday. Instead, the focus for many cable networks has been on year-round programming, making sure that their signature night(s) of originals offer fresh series 52 weeks a year. Only TNT, which was the first basic cable network to make a statement about being equal to the broadcast nets when parent Turner moved its upfront presentation to the traditional broadcast upfront week in May, has steadily expanded the number of its original nights of programming over the past three years — from two to five.
On broadcast, the CW dropped a night of programming, Sunday, in 2008 and has no desire of reclaiming it. Fox too has no plans to expand from two to three hours of programming a night to match ABC, NBC and CBS. The CW also abandoned half-hour comedies several years ago and has been doing pretty well with all-drama, largely serialized programming, validated by the $1 billion Netflix deal the network scored for its series in 2011.
One of the questions heading into 2015 is whether we will we see one of the Big 4 network drop a genre. NBC will be the closest to a comedy-free major broadcast network this midseason with only two shows. Like its other Big 4 counterparts, NBC bought a lot of comedy scripts this pitch season. We will see in the next couple of months how many comedy pilots the network will order, an indication whether the current shift to drama is a long-term strategy.
Another question mark for 2015 is whether the expansion into scripted for several reality-heavy cable networks will be here to stay. It’s been almost a year since Bravo picked up its second produced scripted pilot, Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce, to series. The drama premiered recently to solid reviews but lukewarm ratings, illustrating how hard it is to create new habits in viewers used to associating a network with a certain type of programming. Bravo has not picked up a scripted pilot in 16 months — since Girlfriends’ Guide — and no doubt will be evaluating in detail its performance before making a decision on a future scripted strategy. Ditto for Bravo’s NBCUniversal Cable sibling E!, which ordered its first two scripted pilots in 2013 — one of which, Royals, was picked up to series to premiere in March. There are no other scripted pilots in the pipeline. Meanwhile, WE tv, which prefers the straight-to-series model, already cancelled its first original scripted series, the 2014 The Divide. Before pulling the plug on the crime drama, it ordered a follow-up scripted series, thriller South Of Hell, to debut in 2015.
Given how hard it has been to expand a network’s brand, odds are that probably not all three cable nets will be in the original scripted game this time next year. Sometimes, you can grow and get bigger by getting narrower, not broader.