Hourlong dramas are back in full force


Los Angeles -- Some called it the May Massacre when ABC slashed "China Beach," "thirtysomething," "Twin Peaks" and "Equal Justice" -- all dramas that, though not highly rated, had a certain cachet of quality about them.

Since May 1991, ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger continually has been asked to justify his decision to cancel those dramas.

In July, during a gathering of national television writers, the question was again posed to Mr. Iger.

Mr. Iger grimaced, then said, "I wanted to enjoy this session a little bit more than I did last July."

This season, Mr. Iger renewed most of ABC's dramas, even the marginally rated ones -- "Life Goes On," "Civil Wars," "Homefront" and "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles."

ABC is also adding a few new ones to the schedule, including "Covington Cross," "Crossroads" and "Going to Extremes," the latter from the producers that just about reinvented the dramatic form for CBS with "Northern Exposure."

The drama is back with a vengeance this year with the four networks giving more than one-third of their schedules to one-hour shows.

"Well, we never declared the drama to be dead," Mr. Iger told reporters. "Comedies were working better on our schedule than some of the dramas we had developed. And this year we're not shifting necessarily away from comedies, but we're shifting a little bit back in the drama direction."

Last year, comedies reigned supreme, said Betsy Frank, senior vice president and director of television and new media for Saatchi and Saatchi advertising in New York. "The drama is back as the dominant category," she said. "This is more like the way things used to be. Last year was really the aberration."

Heartened by the return of the dramas is Dorothy Swanson, the president and founder of Viewers for Quality Television, which this year launched a letter-writing campaign to save the endangered "Life Goes On" and NBC's "I'll Fly Away."

"The networks recognize you do not run a network on comedies alone," she said. "The dramas have to be there."

Of course, there's a huge case to be made for comedies, especially among viewers. Four of the top five shows last year were comedies. (The fifth was the No. 1-ranked "60 Minutes.")

More important than ratings, though, is the bottom line. The syndication market is where the studios make their money, a market where dramas aren't very popular.

"Comedies just syndicate better," said Aaron Spelling, whose company is producing five dramas this season, including "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place" and "The Heights" for Fox Broadcasting Co.; "The Round Table" for NBC; and "2000 Malibu Road" for CBS.

"If you're on three or four years with a comedy, you're a cinch to make money," said Mr. Spelling, who nonetheless called dramas "the perfect television form."

"Hunter," a police drama, is one of the few hourlong shows syndicated successfully in recent years. Dramas, instead, have to rely on being sold internationally to turn a profit.

"Frankly, I'm surprised people are making dramas," Mr. Spelling said. "Without foreign [sales], no one could afford to make an hour drama. I don't care if it takes place in a phone booth, you really couldn't do it. American comedies don't play well around the world -- dramas do."

Action-adventure hours sell best, said Leslie Moonves, president of Lorimar Television, the studio that is producing seven dramas for the fall schedule, including "Going to Extremes," "Sisters," "Reasonable Doubts," "Homefront," "I'll Fly Away," "Knots Landing" and "Crossroads."

"Softer shows -- shows that are more American -- don't have quite the appeal overseas," he said.

Lorimar has what Mr. Moonves called a "healthy" blend of dramas and comedies this year.

"There's no question, any production company likes to have a mix of hours and half-hours," he said.

Meanwhile, NBC is showing patience with its dramas by renewing "I'll Fly Away," "Law & Order," "Quantum Leap," "Reasonable Doubts" and "Sisters," among them.

"We're pleased with the number of hours of drama programs that we've put on the air as well as the quality associated with them," said NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

Last season, the year ABC mowed down its one-hour shows, NBC positioned itself as the quality drama network. Now that dramas are staging a comeback, Mr. Littlefield said, "We think we were out front on that. We think we led the way.

"We were not afraid of stepping out and having the greatest number of dramatic shows on network television," he said. "By and large, the quality of our hour programming was as good as could be found anywhere. And we didn't pull back in dramatic programming when other people did."

Last year, CBS tried to move away from traditional doctor-lawyer-cop dramatic formula to shows that had more adventure and more humor and offered the high-concept "Palace Guard," "P.S. I Luv U" and, later in the season, "Tequila and Bonetti."

They bombed.

And best known for its stable of raunchy sitcoms, even Fox is getting into the dramatic act, adding a slate of dramas to its schedule, from the college, coming-of-age drama "Class of '96" to the offbeat "Key West."

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