LAST week wasn’t a great one for NBC, which saw its fall lineup, including the premiere of a new spin on the old car caper “Knight Rider” and the return of the onetime hit “Heroes,” stumble in the ratings.
Whatever happens, though, NBC Entertainment co-Chairman Ben Silverman has already delivered on an important part of what could ultimately prove his legacy at NBC: Hurling a Hail Mary pass to save the low-rated but critically acclaimed fan favorite “Friday Night Lights.” Starting tonight, the once-moribund drama about a football-besotted Texas town will begin its third season with a commercial-free 13-episode run starting this week on DirecTV, in a highly unusual, if not groundbreaking, deal.
Basically, in exchange for getting first dibs on new “FNL” episodes now being shot on location in Texas, DirecTV is subsidizing the series’ costs to the extent that it’s still a worthwhile proposition for NBC, which plans to run slightly different versions of the same episodes on its broadcast network early next year. The producers have had to trim between 5% and 7% from the show’s previous per-episode budget of approximately $2 million. But they promise that hard-core fans -- which “FNL” has in large proportions relative to its puny overall audience, which averaged 6.2 million total viewers last season, according to Nielsen Media Research -- won’t notice a difference.
“Nobody took a pay cut,” David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, one of the show’s producers, told me last week. Compressing the production schedule and taking advantage of some local tax incentives enabled the producers to balance the budget, he added. “It will be very much the same show.”
Why does all this matter to those who are not part of the “FNL” faithful? Because TV fans are very likely to see many more of this type of deal in the future. As last week’s premiere-week ratings made clear, broadcasters continue to have a hard time hanging on to viewers in the face of competition from cable networks, the Internet, video games, DVDs and other media.
In the meantime, the cable outlets have made great strides in their bid to develop high-quality series -- such as AMC’s “Mad Men,” which last month won the Emmy for best drama -- because their economic model is much different than broadcasters’. Cable networks produce far less original programming, are working from a much lower baseline in the ratings and, unlike their broadcast cousins, rake in income from subscribers as well as advertisers. Those factors give them a huge advantage over broadcasters in finding programs that target a narrow but discriminating and affluent audience -- precisely the kind of folks who love a show such as “FNL.”
This means that if broadcasters intend to stay in the game of offering high-quality scripted programming -- and there’s little evidence otherwise, despite some of the tacky depths plumbed by certain reality and game shows -- they will eventually have to do what Silverman did and what film studios have long done: find someone else willing to split the costs in exchange for limited distribution rights or an ownership stake.
“It’s a programming precedent likely to be repeated,” said John Rash, programming analyst for ad firm Campbell Mithun, referring to the “FNL” deal. “It may be a model to help defray costs in the future and could be particularly essential for high-quality but low-rated series.”
If so, that could wind up burnishing the reputation of Silverman and his boss, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, as industry visionaries, even if their new prime-time roster is a dud (an NBC spokeswoman said no one was available to comment for this column).
Zucker has spent much of the last year saying he intends to change television by making fewer pilots and forging new relationships with advertisers. The DirecTV deal for “FNL” is probably the best evidence yet that the NBC party line isn’t just all talk; there’s really some meat there.
If the “FNL” gamble works, much of the credit goes to Silverman. During a visit to last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the oft-criticized NBC executive lamented that the football drama -- which was developed by his predecessor at NBC, Kevin Reilly -- was in jeopardy of cancellation.
This led to a series of talks with Eric Shanks, DirecTV’s executive vice president of entertainment. The satellite operator is ever on the lookout for original product that can give it a boost in its endless war with cable companies.
“We’re going to continue to invest in things like this,” Shanks said of the “FNL” deal. “We really do believe that there’s a benefit to our business in being able to offer our customers stuff that they can’t get on cable.” The operator is even bolstering the show’s “event” appeal with a live call-in show with cast members that will air after every episode.
You may recall that at the start of the column, I suggested that Silverman had “saved” “Friday Night Lights.” Well, that’s certainly true in the short term. But fans should be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead.
For example, the fact that NBC will air episodes after earlier versions have already run somewhere else probably won’t do anything to boost the already-low ratings. Nevins and others point out that DirecTV is available in only 15% or so of U.S. homes that have television, so the “cannibalization” effect won’t be so bad.
Still, to a show that needs every viewer it can find, even a drop of a few percentage points won’t look good to advertisers.
More important, there’s no plan at the moment for ordering “the back nine” installments that would round out a full season of 22 episodes. Shanks told me that DirecTV won’t decide to do anything until after NBC sees how the shows perform next year. By that time, it will probably be far too late to order anything else that would air before June. So fans are probably staring at a truncated season.
And yet to anyone who’s fallen in love with “FNL” during the last two years, Silverman’s game-saver looks a heck of a lot better than the alternative.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org