This fall's freshman class of prime-time network shows is shaping up to be the most expensive ever. A full season of a television drama now costs as much to make as the average feature film.
More than half of the 14 drama pilots produced this fall for the major networks -- CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox -- cost $6 million or more. That's up 50% from just two years ago.
The price tag for a full season is more than $62 million on average, a jump from about $45 million in 2004, according to three industry executives who declined to be named because studios don't like to publicize these figures.
"Each year the costs have been creeping higher and higher," said Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount television group. "Although this year, it feels crazier than most."
The big budgets could be a boon for viewers, considering the level of creativity, talent and special effects this money can buy. Storytelling devices once reserved for the cinema have come en masse to the small screen.
Unfortunately for the TV industry, however, viewers this fall have given a warmer embrace to familiar shows such as "CSI: New York," "ER" and "Dancing With the Stars" than to costly newcomers such as NBC's "Kidnapped" and ABC's "Six Degrees."
That makes executives nervous. The networks are not paying the program suppliers much more than in previous years for the rights to air these shows. Advertising dollars that underwrite the networks' costs for these programs are slowing, not growing. And new media outlets, such as Internet downloads, may not pay big dividends for years to come.
"The business just doesn't sustain this kind of growth in production costs," said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "24" for Fox and CBS' new legal drama "Shark."
Television's soaring inflation has been caused by a "perfect storm" of factors, executives said.
One is the "Lost" effect.
The ABC drama set a record two years ago for how much a company would spend in the race for ratings. Shot in Hawaii with an ensemble cast and a plane crash, the two-hour pilot cost more than $14 million to make.
In search of the next hit, hypercompetitive TV executives this year set out to trump their rivals by duplicating the "Lost" experience. After all, "Lost" helped snap ABC out of its funk. And the networks, particularly fourth-place NBC, could use a jolt.
"It's not only competition that is driving this," Tellem said. "There's a little bit of desperation out there."
Viewing habits have also changed the nature of the game. As consumers erect home theaters complete with surround-sound and 50-inch high-definition plasma screens, TV shows are forced to compete head-to-head with movie DVDs.
That's why network television is now chock-full of special effects and producers, writers, directors and actors who made names for themselves in the movies.
Although there were only a handful of actors who earned more than $100,000 an episode two years ago, television is now teeming with high-rollers. This year's batch includes Matthew Perry, James Woods, Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and John Lithgow, who stars in NBC's new comedy "Twenty Good Years."
"Smith," the new CBS drama about a gang of sophisticated thieves, stars screen actors Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen. While "CSI" has its close-up of a speeding bullet and "24" has its heart-thumping chases, "Smith" has featured a museum heist, a boat chase and fiery explosions. Last week, one of the stars took a menacing, high-speed ride through Venice Beach crowds on a motorcycle.
"Television used to be the Cinderella," Tellem said. "But television is by no means an inferior medium anymore."
But TV is a wacky business. Three-quarters of new programs fail. So far, several of the networks' biggest bets this season, including "Kidnapped" and Aaron Sorkin's drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which stars Perry, have opened to disappointing ratings. Their pilots each came in at close to $7 million.
Other new programs that haven't produced the hoped-for results include "Six Degrees," a mystery about chance encounters among strangers; "Shark," a drama about an ethically challenged prosecutor with James Woods; and Fox's courthouse drama "Justice," the latest from Jerry Bruckheimer Productions.
In the past, TV studios could produce plenty of profit because a program such as "The Simpsons," "Law & Order" or "Friends" would eventually come along and more than make up the costs of forgettable failures such as "LAX" or "Life as We Know It."
But these days, a big payoff is less certain. So-called serialized dramas such as "24" or "Lost," whose stories advance from one week to the next, are some of the priciest shows on television. The trouble is they don't repeat well, limiting the advertising dollars that networks can squeeze from them and reducing their value in syndication.