by Caroline Ensler


Most programs in the early days of television were borrowed network radio, which was the precursor to television.  In the early 1950’s television started to develop a programming genres of its own including the “spectacular” and magazine-style formats such as Today and 60 Minutes. At this point in time, one single advertiser usually sponsored a full program.  Quiz shows also gained popularity in the 1950’s and still remains a popular today.  Many of these quiz and game shows are precursors to the reality programs that are so prevalent today.  In 1961 FCC chairman Newton Minow called television “a vast wasteland” which caused producers to experiment with more adventurous and unique programming. The early 1970’s saw the rise of realistic situation comedies such as All In The Family.  The 1980’s brought about the rise of cable networks with more niche programming models.  The specialization of cable was specifically appealing to advertisers who could now reach a more targeted demographic

Ad Sales and Upfronts

Ad sales are a major source of revenue for a television program.  The average 30 second spot for the 2012 Super Bowl cost $3.5 million.

With the television network upfronts currently going on and some still approaching, Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente predicts another strong year.  He estimated that the broadcast upfront revenue would increase 4.3% and the cable upfront revenue would rise 6.3%.  Both of these numbers reflect a weaker growth than last year.  Those numbers would bring the upfront primetime ad sales for the broadcast networks to $9.49 billion which is a new record high.  The cable channel total is expected to be $9.88 billion, outperforming the broadcast networks which is extremely important to note.

Some highly anticipated pilots this season include:

  • Carrie Diaries (The CW): From Josh Schwartz, executive producer of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, comes a show that chronicles Carrie Bradshaw’s coming of age in the 1980’s when she asks her first questions about love, sex, friendship and family while exploring the worlds of high school and Manhattan.
  • Gilded Lilys (ABC): From Shonda Rhimes, the producer of Grey’s Anatomy, comes a show is set in 1895 New York City and follows the opening of the first luxury hotel in the city and all the intermingling of love, treachery and disdain between the classes.
  • Untitled Serial Killer Project (FOX): From Kevin William, the executive producer of Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek and the Scream franchise, comes an edge-of-the-seat thriller about a diabolical serial killer who uses technology to create a cult of serial killers, and the FBI agent who finds himself in the middle of it. Kevin Beacon is attached to star.

Alternative Channels

According to Variety, Virgin Produced, the film and television division of Richard Branson’s company announced in April that they would be launching a TV channel on their airline Virgin America. 

Virgin Produced is programming and producing its own slate of original content.  The content will all be short-form, similar to what is seen on web series channels such as YouTube.  The original programming has already started to air on the Virgin America, and will soon be joined by content from partners such as Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Digital, Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy, Judd Apatow and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die, Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s Stoopid Monkey, Steven Schneider and  Virgin will have the exclusive airline rights to the properties.  The Virgin programming will be broken up until three bocks: life, laugh and loud.  The content will be refreshed every month.  It will also feature some longer-form programming such as documentaries.

Costs of Production

Production companies must handle a fair amount of cash in order to operate.  The largest budget line item on a show is staff.  The cost of producing a pilot also adds risk.  Producers want to spend money making a pilot look good, but this investment can only be recouped if the show is not only picked up, but is also successful.  If the pilot does not get picked up the cost is absorbed by the network and/or the studio’s development budget.

Smash which debuted on NBC on February 6th is produced by Steven Spielberg and stars Katherine McPhee of American Idol fame.  The budget for this show is pegged at $3.5 million per episode, with the pilot costing a reported $7.5 million. This is extremely high for a freshman series, but the show’s producers have a proven track record of success.

Program Sales

The major broadcast networks are: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and The CW.  A majority of primetime programming on these networks come from production companies that are affiliated with the television division of a motion picture studio.  The typical format for primetime is a combination of one-hour dramas and half-hour comedies.

Programs produced for local market syndication are usually talk shows.  Regis Philbin’s last appearance on Live! With Regis and Kelly was on November 18th, 2011.  The show was renamed Live! With Kelly and continued with different guest hosts until a permanent co-host is selected.  The show expects to find a permanent host by May 2012 sweeps.



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