Drama they can’t script
Michael Stecher, who has worked in Hollywood for 18 years, sees himself as high royalty in an unenviable kingdom. The El Segundo father of two has been fired so many times that he refers to himself as “The King of Canceled TV Shows.” Twice he received pink slips at lunch.
“People don’t realize how fast it can change,” said Stecher, who has been let go five times. Now he’s a camera operator for CBS’ military action drama “The Unit.” “There is zero security in this gig.”
Stecher is one of about 225 people directly employed by the program, which chronicles the exploits of an elite U.S. Army counter-terrorism force. Over the last four seasons, Stecher has seen the show’s main characters thwart dirty- bomb attacks, recover Stinger missiles and halt assassinations. But what nobody knows is whether they will survive “the bubble,” the tenuous region where television shows on the boundary of renewal and cancellation exist. Tonight’s season finale could be the series’ final episode.
If drama is life heightened, then Hollywood’s bubble shows mirror much of America right now, where the specter of pay reductions, freezes and immediate unemployment is writ large. In the television industry, the phenomenon is an annual rite as network executives decide which series will be ditched to make room for new projects.
“What the country in general is going through, if you choose to work in Hollywood, you’ve accepted a life that is constantly like that,” said executive producer Shawn Ryan, who runs “The Unit” and created the FX cable channel’s cop drama “The Shield.” “There’s no coasting along. They don’t care if you’re some huge star or an established writer. They’ll take the best idea wherever they can come up with it, and in May they’ll reevaluate where they are. Everyone has been fired in this business in one way or another.”
In all, 18 shows across the five broadcast networks reside in the bubble, and have since March, when the decisions about renewal typically begin. The cast and crew of “The Unit,” a steady but unspectacular ratings performer, have been here before, but that doesn’t make the wait any easier. They expect a verdict from CBS on May 20.
Executive producer Vahan Moosekian is as familiar with these employment ups and downs as anyone. His four years on “The Unit” is his longest stint on any show during his 33 years in the industry, stability he knows could easily be followed by years of unemployment. With the rise of reality TV and NBC’s new 10 p.m. Jay Leno comedy show, there are fewer jobs in scripted television.
“You just go, ‘Oh God! I have to look for a job!’ ” said Moosekian, who was between takes of filming what could be the show’s last episode north of Los Angeles last month.
“A lot of us have lost retirement money, and we don’t have as much money in the bank as we used to because of the strike, so it’s a little scarier this time,” he said, referring to the 100-day writers strike that ended early last year. “I don’t think I’d panic, but I don’t want it to end.”
“The Unit,” which ended production April 7, has been on the bubble every season since its launch. The David Mamet-created drama registers 9 million to 11 million viewers, as it has throughout its run. That’s a respectable figure, but only a third of those are younger than 49, a demographic that CBS needs to court. The drama also picks up 1.4 million viewers each week from DVR use.
“The Unit” audience, which has a median age of 54.6, still has some appeal to advertisers: 25% of its viewers have graduated from college, 35% earn income above $75,000, and 21% make $100,000 or more, according to Nielsen data provided by CBS.
“Typically, the shows that are on the bubble are on the bubble because they haven’t failed. There’s something that’s still working,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of ad-buying firm Starcom. “For [‘The Unit’], it must be ‘Groundhog Day.’ It’s a big gamble for CBS to cancel it because we know most of the new shows don’t work and they know what numbers it can deliver.”
There is no science to the method executives use to select programs, but there are many variables. Ratings, especially time-slot performance, are a key element. Which company owns the show matters too. More and more, networks are sticking with shows made by their own companies rather than one produced by another studio. That way there’s more money to be made from syndication, overseas showings and digital sales. “The Unit” isn’t produced by CBS, but by 20th Century Fox Television, where executives have signaled a willingness to cut costs to keep the show going.
“For the CBS viewer, this show is unique,” said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television. “The audience may not be huge, but there’s going to be enormous disappointment if it goes off and it’s replaced with one more procedural or forensics show.”
Lean budgets also are important. From that standpoint, “The Unit” has an advantage. Mostly shot in Southern California, it costs less than $3 million per episode to produce, despite the many action sequences. That’s about half the price tag of the typical television drama.
Controlling special effects and travel costs is one thing. Talent is another. Because of the recession, networks are asking many producers, writers and actors to forgo the customary raises that come after every season. That could include Dennis Haysbert, the show’s star, who said his personal wishes for the show’s future are contingent upon his salary and the creative direction of the program.
“There are a number of factors that go into whether I want it back or not,” said Haysbert, well known for being a spokesman for an insurance company and his turn as president in the Fox network drama “24.” “It’s been a great ride and, if I don’t work with these people again, I’ll certainly play golf with them.”
The networks’ process of elimination is carried out in complete secrecy, a maddening tradition for those waiting for resolution. CBS executives declined to be interviewed for this article and would issue only a statement via e-mail.
“One of the hardest parts of the job is making decisions this time of year about the future of shows that are terrific creatively but have a ratings picture that isn’t as clear,” wrote President of Entertainment Nina Tassler. “While it’s a business, we’re very aware of the human factor; for every show on the bubble, there are hundreds of talented people on staff who work very hard, and they’re waiting for an answer.”
To relieve his purgatory-like stress, Krishna Rao, the show’s director of photography, has taken to exercise. First, he started bicycling, then running. Now, he’s a triathlete.
“You get used to building up savings and then going through every single penny,” said Rao, a father of four. “One way of dealing with the anxiety is to become this kind of ultra athlete to get my mind off it. The other thing I will be spending a lot of time on while we wait for the news is gardening.”
Living in limbo often leads to flashes of resentment and a search for answers, even when everyone understands that longevity is an anomaly in the industry.
“If there was more advertising from the network on this show, the numbers in the [18-to-49-year-old] demo would be better and we wouldn’t be a bubble show,” said Scott Foley, one of the show’s stars. “I think you see ads, not just on the network, but also on billboards and on radio, for every other show on CBS except us.”
Foley discovered he was no Method actor when it came to his approach at what could have been his last day on the set.
“I have to tell myself that this is the last day,” he said. “So I’m going to say bye and if we get the phone call that says we’ll be together again for another season, it’s a bonus. But to trick yourself into believing anything else, you’re just asking for heartbreak.”
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The ‘bubble’ shows
“Without a Trace” (seven seasons produced)
“Cold Case” (six seasons)
“The New Adventures of Old Christine” (four seasons)
“The Unit” (four seasons)
“Rules of Engagement” (three seasons)
“Gary Unmarried” (one season)
“Samantha Who?” (two seasons)
“Better Off Ted” (premiered in March)
“Castle” (premiered in March)
“Surviving Suburbia” (premiered in April)
“The Unusuals” (premiered in April)
“Law & Order” (19 seasons)
“Medium” (five seasons)
“My Name Is Earl"(four seasons)
“Chuck” (two seasons)
“Dollhouse” (premiered in February)
“Sit Down, Shut Up” (premiered in April)
“Privileged” (one season)