'Under the Dome's' Success Secret: CBS Execs 'Were Able to Make Big, Ballsy Decisions'

From left: CBS TV president David Stapf, actress Rachelle Lefevre, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler and actor Dean Norris
From left: CBS TV president David Stapf, actress Rachelle Lefevre, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler and actor Dean Norris
 Ramona Rosales

 

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

 
Having Steven Spielberg and Stephen King on board was enough to get the industry buzzing about the event series Under the Dome. Then CBS entertainment chief Tassler added a level of intrigue by scheduling it smack in the middle of summer.
 

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Prior to Dome, summertime had been reserved for reality and low-budget scripted fare at the broadcast networks, and the drama -- about an indestructible dome that cuts off a Maine town from civilization -- fit neither category. It featured pricey sets, big special effects and a sizable cast of recognizable stars, including Breaking Bad's Dean Norris, 50, Twilight's Rachelle Lefevre, 34, and Bates Motel's Mike Vogel, 34. But Tassler was looking to reclaim a three-month period that her cable rivals had seized with high-profile originals, including Falling Skies (TNT) and True Blood (HBO).

To Tassler, 56, and CBS TV Studios president Stapf, 55, the series -- from Spielberg's Amblin Television, writer Brian K. Vaughan and showrunner Neal Baer -- had the characteristics to cut through the summer clutter. "It was escapist and obviously sci-fi," says Tassler, "but it's a fantasy with relatable characters set in small-town America that's also very relatable."

Dome spawned a financial model that makes summertime gambles of its size viable on broadcast. In addition to licensing the drama in more than 200 territories worldwide, CBS inked a rich, first-of-its-kind deal with Amazon that gave the streaming giant rights to episodes just four days after they aired. (It reportedly paid $700,000 per installment and helped make Dome instantly profitable for CBS.)

"It worked beyond our expectations," says Stapf of the experiment, with Dome ending its first season as the most watched summer series in more than two decades with, on average, 15 million-plus viewers. The series returns in summer 2014, with King set to pen the first episode.

"There wasn't as much pressure," notes Lefevre, referring to the lack of precedent. CBS execs "were able to make big, ballsy decisions as a result, and success is what comes from that."

 

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