Niche shows find a home

Critical favorites have low ratings but biggest stars

By Scott Collins

Los Angeles Times


Showtime’s terrorism thriller “Homeland” has nearly everything: big-name stars, glossy production values and a surprising triple Emmy sweep last week.

The one thing it lacks? A giant audience. But under TV’s new economics, big ratings don’t necessarily matter anymore.

“Homeland” is a tense drama about an emotionally troubled CIA agent played by Claire Danes, who’s plagued by doubts about a U.S. Marine (Damian Lewis) held captive by al-Qaida. It costs about $3 million an episode to make but averaged fewer than 2 million viewers in its initial airings — less than one-tenth of what a broadcast hit such as CBS’ “NCIS” gets.

“Homeland,” which had its second-season premiere Sunday, is already a case study in how rapidly changing technology and competitive pressures have upended the TV business, allowing niche shows to thrive.

This is a reversal of standard TV business practices in place for half a century. Traditionally, studios were willing to lose money on a series initially in hopes the show would grow into a smash hit and get resold as repeats to local stations and cable networks.

Giant checks would then roll in and those profits would help pay for years of development of other shows — many of which would end up as costly flops.

NBC’s sitcom “Friends” is a good example of a show that hit it big in the syndication market. Its total value has far exceeded $1 billion, keeping its studio, Warner Bros., in the chips for years.

But over the past few years, cable networks such as Showtime, HBO, AMC and FX have dumped millions of dollars into original programming and have been rewarded with far more critical acclaim than Nielsen ratings points. “Girls,” the HBO series nominated for the best comedy, didn’t muster even 1 million total viewers during its first season, according to Nielsen. That’s a fraction of the audience seen for CBS’ hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”

It’s the same story with other Emmy nominees such as FX’s comedy “Louie” and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” AMC’s 1960s period piece “Mad Men,” which won the drama category for four years in a row until “Homeland’s” victory this year, would almost certainly be judged a flop if it aired on a broadcast network.

Even with fewer viewers, networks and studios can make a lot of money off digital outlets — and those sums are growing. Last year, Netflix paid Lionsgate Entertainment — which makes “Mad Men” — at least $75 million to stream all seven seasons of the series. That amounts to $1 million per episode.

Premium cable networks also bring in money by selling shows on iTunes and other media platforms.

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