Friday, November 06, 2009

Reader mail: Cable vs. network budgets, 'Grey's,' 'Defying Gravity' and more

Do to a technical snafu, I didn't get to post today's column, a reader mailbag, until just now. The main item is about how cable networks are able to produce dramas that get much lower ratings than on the networks. The short answer: cable shows are much cheaper. (And I have a few numbers illustrating that.)

22 comments:

Brandy said...

I don't often watch commercials when I watch something on DVR delay. However, when something catches my eye in a commercial I roll it back and watch it. If it's a great commercial I roll it back and watch it. If i was in the garage getting a drink or something because I didn't have a DVR those ads would be lost to me.

velvetcannibal said...

I'm glad you touched on the DVR thing in that mailbag, because as a user I've always felt that analysts miss the point. The big perk of DVR for me is the VCR-without-a-tape aspect of it, not the fast forwarding through commercials. I tend to skip the commercials in half hour comedies but let them roll during a drama to get up and do something. Or I just let them roll because I don't care. The DVR is much more about watching when I want than skipping the commercials. It's a perk I only bother with half of the time. I'm more addicted to the aspect of watching on my own schedule and not having to adhere to an inconvenient time slot. Commercials were never the issue.

Chris said...

I understand the budget differences between cable and broadcast. But why can't broadcast reduce the budget to cable levels? Is this some pride thing? Demand from affiliates? It can't be that the shows will start looking cheap. Mad Men is one of the most gorgeous shows ever put on TV and that has a cable budget.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It can't be that the shows will start looking cheap. Mad Men is one of the most gorgeous shows ever put on TV and that has a cable budget.

They will start looking cheap. Mad Men is an exception, both in that the people who make it are really great at stretching a buck, and in that they were able to hire a lot of unknown actors (who wouldn't cost much) who turned out to be brilliant. But it's also a show without a lot of action, that takes place almost entirely indoors, and has other factors that make it easier to control costs.

The networks have tried cheaper scripted programming. That's most of what was on this past summer: international co-productions designed to cost less. And they sucked.

A cable budget is incredibly limiting. The really good shows manage to overcome that, but it makes the degree of difficulty much, much higher.

Matt said...

As an example of shows that know how to stretch a budget, one need look no further than USA. While a bunch of the shows manage to stretch their budget by shooting in non-traditional locations (Canada, Miami, New Mexico) where crew comes cheaper, both Royal Pains and White Collar shoot in NYC and have fairly substantial location shooting and decent names in the cast.

Anonymous said...

Is Mad Men really the exception? Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Monk, Burn Notice are just some of the shows you and I like that were made on cable. Meanwhile, shows like Merlin and Kings ran on networks and looked pretty cheap and aimless. It seems to me that cable can consistently show that it can make quality dramas with low budgets whereas the big networks just seem to waste money (on big name actors, on big special effects that don't really add value, on producers and other middlemen who just get in the way of the creative process).

Andrew said...

You mention that networks are supported on ad revenues solely. Do they not benefit from cable and satellite providers that include them in packages?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Correct. Every now and then a guy like Les Moonves will threaten to demand subscriber fees from the cable companies, but it hasn't happened yet.

Anna said...

I would just like to say, since it was mentioned in the column, Grey's Anatomy was freaking incredible last night again.

Mike F said...

How do the budgets for episodes of shows on HBO or Showtime compare to cable and the networks?

Production values seem higher on HBO, especially.

christy said...

I'm also not surprised that DVRs don't cut down on commercial viewing as much as you'd initially think.

Whether you can fast forward or not, skipping commercials takes some action. If you have a DVR, you have to manually fast forward, watching the screen to make sure you stop at the right time. And if you don't have one, you get up and leave the room, or mute the TV and pick up something to read, or flip channels.

In both cases, those who end up actually watching commercials are those that truly want to veg out and not think about it or do anything. And of those that actively try not to watch commercials, people with DVRs actually see more of them. I lay my eyes on lots of logos by fast-forwarding, as well as catching the gist of most ads.

To me, "you don't want to watch it a day later" means "you never really cared very much about watching it in the first place."

Anonymous said...

SAG allows companies who are producing a show for basic cable TV to pay actors at a lower rate than for films or network series. Also, many of the states that are now offering tax incentives for production companies are offering them specifically for cable productions. That is why Royal Pains and White Collar are both shooting in New York state.

Spencer said...

Correct. Every now and then a guy like Les Moonves will threaten to demand subscriber fees from the cable companies, but it hasn't happened yet.

It actually has happened - CBS negotiated retransmission fees from a number of cable and satellite providers and is expecting more. However, the prices the networks have achieved has not reached the level of subscription fees premiere cable channels receive (e.g. ESPN).

http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/383011-CBS_Retrans_Fees_Expected_to_Double_in_2010.php

Murdoch has already announce he and Fox will be next on the list.

Nicole said...

I think another factor is that cable shows only run about half the amount of episodes per season, 13 as opposed to 23 to 26. I actually think that most shows would benefit from having less episodes per season so that the writers would be forced to make the overall plots tighter.

As for looking cheap, I know the CGI effects of Merlin weren't always the best (something that has improved in the second season), but Kings had fabulous cinematography, and Ian McShane, two things more impressive than your average network show.

Rick said...

Sort of related to the article: this season of Monk has been relly good. Five episodes left, Emmy nominee and winner- will we get some Sepinwall Quick Thoughts before the end?

Miranda said...

Alan, I hope you'll answer the question in an earlier comment about how budgets for shows on HBO and Showtime compare, because I'm very curious about that. Nothing about "Deadwood," for example, looked inexpensive (but then, I would say the same thing about "Burn Notice," except that the period costume in "Deadwood" would have to drive the price up.)

Also, on another subject you touched on in your column, isn't calling Leno's show "DVR-proof" sort of bad? I mean, if I had a new show, I wouldn't sell it by saying that no one will want to watch it two days after it airs. Yikes! I haven't watched the show and don't plan to, and I don't know anyone who has. Is someone watching it?

Tracey said...

I actually do catch a lot of the commercials while I'm DVR'ing: the quality of my DVR is so good that I forget I'm DVRing and I don't remember to fast forward!

Maura said...

I avoid commercials with my DVR almost as much as I did with a VCR. My goal is to watch as many commercial-free shows as possible, so, if I'm watching and recording at the same time, I will let some commercials run, but that's when I have to do something in another room. I actually prefer to start watching about 15 minutes into the show, so I can ff through most of the commercials.

I do, however, agree with velvetcannibal that the true perk of DVR is watching shows on my own schedule. We only recently got a DVR. I was skeptical at first, but now that I know the ins and outs, I think it's a wonderful thing.

Rogers Cadenhead said...

I still don't understand the cable vs. broadcast budget issue. Burn Notice looks so much more expensive than Alias and 24. Why can't broadcast TV hire the producers from cable who are so good at getting more from less?

Craig Ranapia said...

Alan, I hope you'll answer the question in an earlier comment about how budgets for shows on HBO and Showtime compare, because I'm very curious about that.

Rome was a hugely expensive co-production between HBO and the BBC (I think the budget for season one was in the region of US$100 million, with HBO stumping up around 85%). But even though the show was far from a critical or commercial flop, I don't think either party could make the numbers work in the end -- especially with the costs of shooting in Italy.

Matt said...

Burn Notice is cheaper than network dramas because:

1. They only have four regulars, one of whom (Gless) is not on an "every episode" contract. That cuts base expenses, especially since none of the four is likely making huge huge money. Alias had at least 7 regulars in every season, many of whom were making substantial bank. The low number of regulars is a big part of how USA keeps budgets low (Monk has 4 regulars, Psych has 6, a couple of whom aren't in every episode, Royal Pains has 4)--in contrast NCIS (a relatively small cast network drama) has 7 regulars (plus the coroner's assistant, who I think is a regular but isn't in the opening titles).

2. They film in Miami and get a lot of tax incentives there, also employing a fair number of local actors, who work at cheaper rates than those in LA, because of cost of living reasons.

3. The scope of stunt work and tech work is much smaller on Burn Notice--Alias in particular had A LOT of effects work in some episodes and a lot of complicated props/sets/location shooting. Part of the point of BN is that Westen is improvising with standard gear, making it cheaper.

Mike said...

Friday Night Lights is a show that started on a network, but because they can make the show for cheap managed to survive the transition to cable-like numbers on DirecTv. We might soon see the same thing with Southland.