NBC strikes deal to air prime-time docudramas
By Meg James, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 3, 2007
NBC is turning over precious real estate to outside producers in an effort to spend less money on programming as its business is challenged by a changing entertainment landscape.
Under a deal quietly finalized last week, NBC agreed to carve out a two-hour block on its prime-time schedule for adventure documentaries produced by Thom Beers, whose credits include such popular cable shows as "Deadliest Catch" and "Monster Garage."
NBC confirmed Sunday that it had ordered three of the so-called docudramas from the partnership of Beers and BermanBraun, the production company formed this year by former network entertainment chiefs Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun. NBC plans to buy at least three more shows in the same genre from the partnership.
The deal is noteworthy because NBC has promised, at least initially, to run the Beers shows back-to-back on the same night and could eventually expand the block to three hours.
"This is a totally unique deal with tons of potential," said Braun, a former top executive at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network and Yahoo. "We love the docudrama format. It's a form of television that hasn't been actively explored on the network level."
NBC had considered airing the block Saturday nights, when prime-time viewership is low, but it has not decided on a night.
The arrangement is not a first of its kind for NBC. Producer Peter Engel provided a Saturday morning block of shows that included "Saved by the Bell," which began its run in the late 1980s.
Five years ago, NBC structured a deal with Discovery Communications Inc. to provide Saturday morning programming, but that has since expired.
In some ways, NBC is ripping a page from Discovery, which has enjoyed robust ratings from shows including those produced by Beers, who is chief executive of Original Productions.
Network executives are struggling to find more cost-effective ways to make shows at a time when prime-time ratings are falling because of newer technologies such as digital video recorders and the Internet.
Until recently, a TV company could make money by airing a single episode two or three times during a season on its network. Producers reaped huge rewards when successful shows were sold into syndication.
But these days, ratings for repeats have declined, threatening the industry's system for covering its losses on the shows that didn't work. What's more, the major networks such as NBC are streaming their shows on the Internet, but the returns are negligible compared with those from syndication. No wonder that, with production costs soaring on dramas and comedies, TV executives have been trying to find savings.
Shows such as "Deadliest Catch" that generate robust ratings cost only about $600,000 an hour to produce, compared with as much as $3 million for an hourlong prime-time drama, according to two people familiar with the finances. Beers said his shows appealed to a particularly lucrative niche of young men who are not always tuned into network TV.
"I'm a blue-collar guy, I came out of New York and this is the world I know," he said in an interview.
The idea for the programming block originated this year, when Braun and Berman, formerly president of Fox Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, began discussing ways to program Saturday night with NBC. Not lost on the executives was the success that Fox Broadcasting has enjoyed with its 20-year franchise of "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted" on Saturday.
The producers then zeroed in on shows such as "Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers," which Beers said attracted nearly 5 million viewers during its season finale in August. Berman and Braun approached Beers, and they arranged the partnership.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. However, NBC Universal has agreed to buy at least 30 hours of programming from Beers and BermanBraun.
NBC declined to comment on the deal. email@example.com