How Cable and Netflix Are Strangling the Broadcast TV Drama

Network TV Drama Drain - H 2013

Network TV Drama Drain - H 2013

Though the comedy market is red-hot, studios fret as one-hour network pitches slow and top dramatic writers flee even as the half-hour business thrives.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

ABC Studios chief Patrick Moran is starting to get nervous. And he isn't alone.

The broadcast networks threw open their doors in July for the annual TV development season, and so far drama writers have been slow to appear. Moran says his studio has sold about a third of the dramas it expects to land at the Big Five networks during the three-month-plus period, rather than the half he would have sold by now in past years. It's vastly different from the red-hot comedy market, with its frequent bidding wars. "Drama is very slow -- slow to the point of keep-me-up-at-night," says Moran of a trend that suggests the explosion of cable and digital outlets is causing a talent drain that could upend the broadcast business.

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"There's no denying that the sheer volume of cable dramas -- including those from Netflix, Amazon and everywhere else -- has had an impact on who is available," says Universal TV executive vp Bela Bajaria of the drama writer shortage. In fact, there are believed to be more than 150 dramas -- among broadcast, cable and digital -- in production, leaving many writers and producers locked up or too busy running shows to develop new ones.

What's more, many writers who are available often are more interested in chasing their own passion projects a la Breaking Bad or House of Cards, say several top agents. Plus, a cable drama doesn't have to compete against 50 to 70 other hourlong entries in development the way it would in broadcast -- and once on the air, the likelihood of survival is considerably greater. Even the traditional advantage network executives have had in being able to promise financial rewards far greater than their cable cousins has slipped with what some are dubbing the "Netflix effect," referring to the streaming service's willingness to shell out big money, straight-to-series orders and limited creative interference -- a combination against which ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC often can't compete.

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One drama exec says his department was hearing only two or three pitches a day in late August, compared with the five his network traditionally hears. Admits another, "I'm reading more specs [scripts] because I actually have the time." A few others acknowledge the climate has changed their approach. "We used to wait for projects to come to us," says one, noting that he and his peers now go directly to writers with ideas or genres and work with sister studios earlier in the development process.

There have been exceptions, of course, including Extant, a sci-fi spec from Steven Spielberg's Amblin that all four broadcast networks (and several cable nets) bid on before CBS nabbed it with a straight-to-series 13-episode order. Extant, like many dramas being pitched, is heavily serialized, another nod to cable's growing influence. Also hot are Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty iterations. Such shows provide inherent stakes, big twists and an opportunity for writers to comment on current events. What's more, they can be both commercial (broadcast-friendly) and bold (cable-competitive). Adaptations remain popular, too, as evidenced by Reality Bites (NBC), Outbreak (NBC) and Love, American Style (CBS), as well as high-concept, genre and time-travel projects.

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Meanwhile, network comedy divisions have benefited from a relative lack of cable competition. An added bonus: Writers want to develop for broadcast, where the financial upside is far greater. "Comedies [on cable] are very hard to make sense of financially from the standpoint of a participant or a content owner," explains 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden, adding, "And it's still a form of storytelling that broadcast networks are thriving and succeeding with." Among the different genres being pitched with frequency are romantic comedies and workplace ideas, both harder to find on today's broadcast schedules, along with more family concepts.

Additionally, there's renewed interest in the multicamera format among the networks, given cost savings of as much as $1 million an episode and the genre's history of generating big money in syndication. "It's the type of programming that a viewer doesn't have to be so completely focused on to enjoy," says Walden of multicam's advantages, with Moran noting gleefully, "We're seeing younger writers, who in years past would have turned their noses up at multicam, coming in and saying, 'We want to figure out a way to make this feel fresh again.' "