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Episodic drama resurgence feeds restless audiences

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NBC's "Heroes" creator and executive producer Tim Kring recently got a taste of a brave new world of TV programming while he was overseas. And it had nothing to do with actual TV sets.

In France, it appears, "Heroes" is a major hit. "It's the biggest, most talked-about television show in France right now, with magazines and radio shows devoted to it," Kring marvels.

There's just one hitch: It won't air in France until this summer. "Everybody is watching (it) there on the Internet, illegally down-loading it off of Web sites around the world or trading DVDs with one another," he reports.

The watercooler might have once been the place to weigh in on who shot Mr. Burns of Fox's "The Simpsons" or who got whacked on HBO's "The Sopranos" the night before, but more and more viewers are now getting their TV fix where and when they want it -- by time-shifting, on DVDs, on their computers, or by logging on to a show's Web site or Wikipedia page and checking out recaps of the previous night's episode.

At some point, television became more ubiquitous than ever, largely thanks to fans wanting it on their programming schedules, not the networks'. And that, in turn, has contributed to the rebirth of one of television's staple formats. After years of being regarded as ungainly to rerun or impossible to syndicate without reaching that magic number, 100, the primetime TV serial is making a major comeback.

"There were literally all sorts of Internet communities built up around (ABC's) 'Lost' who'd get together for fan events and become friends while bonding over the show," "Lost" executive producer Carlton Cuse says. "I think the Internet component cannot be underestimated as being a huge factor in catalyzing the rebirth of the serialized drama."

Networks are responding, if tentatively. Earlier this month, ABC rewrote the rules by giving "Lost" an unprecedented exit strategy in the form of a firm commitment to 48 new episodes to be spread out over the next three seasons. In addition to each 16-episode season running in an interrupted block, the deal called for executive producers Cuse and Damon Lindelof to remain with the series until the end.

"The only show we could think of that completely ended on its own terms was the original version of 'The Fugitive,'" Cuse says. "I think that now, some of the unease that the audience feels in investing in our show without knowing where it was going or when it was going to end should hopefully be eliminated."

Whether the network was merely ensuring a measure of quality control for the series by keeping the creative team onboard -- or addressing larger programming issues pertaining specifically to the serialized format -- the TV industry is paying close attention.

Not that the serialized drama, in its current popular guise, is anything new. From the late 1970s through the late '80s, "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" reigned supreme. And NBC's "ER" kicked off in 1994 and is still going strong.

What's changed is the surrounding technology and the fast-forward reality of television on demand, which is putting the parameters of appointment television firmly in viewers' hands.

A week after ABC's "Lost" announcement, Fox gave "24" a commitment for two more seasons (or another two days), each of which would start airing in January and run interrupted through May.

While Kiefer Sutherland's contract already guaranteed that the actor would play Jack Bauer through 2009, the announcement coincided with plans to give the six-year-old Emmy-winning series a creative overhaul in the wake of waning critical and viewer enthusiasm.

"Basically, you can't get more serialized than minute-to-minute," "24" executive producer Evan Katz says.

While "24" certainly had that real-time novelty factor in its favor, timing wasn't exactly on its side when it came to its premiere in 2001, just two months after the events of Sept. 11.

"The show's been an interesting slow-builder," adds Katz, who joined the series in Season 2. "It was a solid performer, but it took that jump in the fourth season that pushed it into a different place ratings-wise. You don't normally get that kind of opportunity."

At another time in broadcasting history, "24" likely wouldn't have had that opportunity to grow with its audience. Typically, a drama series with a higher-end budget would count on syndication revenue, but a serialized drama just didn't work as well in syndication as something with stand-alone episodes like NBC's "Law & Order."

But something happened that put everyone on high alert.

"It was the performance of '24' on DVD in the summer after it had first run that led the networks to think that suddenly, there might be another revenue stream for these shows," USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco explains.

The success of "24's" DVD sales seemed to present a viable alternative to the trusty syndication route. And even more significantly, that DVD revenue wasn't confined to the North American market.

"We were recently told that the 'Lost' DVD for Season 1 basically outsold (2006's) 'Cars' and (2005's 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe') in Japan," explains Lindelof, who co-created the series along with J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber. "The only way that a TV show could profit in the past was to make 100 episodes and strip it. But people are watching television now on their own terms instead of on the terms that previously were dictated by the networks and the cable channels."

DVD is just one component of the on-demand universe. Add to that the TiVo/DVR factor, which, according to Cuse, is the viewing method of choice for 2.5 million "Lost" faithful, in addition to online streaming, and there's growing evidence of a paradigm shift in the way people are watching television.

Meanwhile, the office water cooler is still alive and kicking, but it's now a monitor that's wired to the Internet, giving viewers the opportunity to exchange opinions immediately after or even during the show without having to wait to go to work the next day.

Although it came into the revived serial genre later in the game, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (which debuted in spring 2005) was such an instant hit that every programmer got put on notice.

"What's interesting about the time that we started was, for us, there was no template, and we weren't even thinking of ourselves as a serialized drama," "Anatomy" creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes says. "To me, it was a show about people that had surgery in it."

More recently, especially during this past season, the series seemed to be leaning more in that serialized direction, but Rhimes maintains that it has more to do with the show's own evolution than following any network mandate.

"The more you got to know the characters on the show, the more there was to explain, and the more there was to explore," Rhimes says. "I don't necessarily know that we're going to continue to embrace (the serialized aspect) as much as we have, but I do know that this season, it felt like the very right time to explore these things with these characters."

But not all serialized dramas have an E-ticket to success. This past season, NBC's "Heist" and "Kidnapped" and ABC's "Invasion" and "The Nine" didn't fare well.

Given the myriad viewing options at consumers' disposal, only so many propositions can warrant 22 episodes of their time before offering any kind of resolution. And audiences, savvier than ever about the behind-the-scenes workings at networks, might feel gun-shy about investing time and energy in a show that could get yanked out from under them.

"I think that hurt (Fox's) 'Drive,'" Bianco says. "People looked at it and thought, 'I'm never going to find out what happens with this show.' And they didn't want to start a story they didn't think was going to finish."

But even success stories like "Heroes," with its weekly cliffhangers and aggressive storytelling, are encountering pitfalls when it comes to conventional network scheduling practices.

"We lost several million viewers when we came back after a six-week hiatus, and we don't appear to be getting those viewers back," Kring says. "The show was moving along consistently until then, so it clearly points up a problem with the conundrum of scheduling. The goal is to find a way to run episodes as contiguously as you can."

That's one reason why Kring and others are regarding ABC's and Fox's recent announcements with considerable interest. While it remains to be seen whether those multiseason renewals represent a more widely acknowledged need to readdress conventional programming wisdom in this multiplatform era, if the new fall schedule is any indication, the serialized drama isn't going anywhere.

As they say on "Heroes," to be continued ...