By now you’ve heard about CBS’s instant mega-hit “Under the Dome.” More than 13 million people watched the premiere episode a week ago, and 11.5 million tuned in to the 2nd episode that aired Mon night. These are huge numbers for a summer TV release, especially one that lacks a major star, is decidedly serialized and runs on a network whose audience usually tunes in for procedural dramas, not “Twilight Zone”-inspired spookiness.
What’s less well known is that this show—a Stephen King novel adaptation about a town suddenly surrounded by a mysterious dome—was originally developed for CBS sister net Showtime. But when Showtime passed, CBS pres, entertainment Nina Tassler pounced. “I read it over the weekend, and I loved it,” she said at the Television Critics Tour in Jan. “I said, ‘You know, we really have a unique opportunity here if we package it properly, put the right auspices, to do a big summer event’.” Then she brought in veteran producer Neal Baer (“E.R.,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), and it was off to the races. “When you have that kind of power above the line… you’ve got the goods to really take a bold move and program it during the summer,” she said.
So how could Showtime let this one slip through its fingers? Well, let’s not get too superior about this. A few things to keep in mind:
1.A Matter of Taste – What works on CBS wouldn’t necessarily work on Showtime. Showtime viewers are accustomed to gritty, grounded dramas and raunchy comedies, and they may have balked at a high-concept mind bender like Under the Dome. Remember, this is the home of “Dexter,” “Homeland,” “Californication,” “Shameless,” “House of Lies” and “Ray Donovan.” No matter what the ratings, Under the Dome seems a bit out of place.
2.Promotional Muscle – As the top rated broadcast network, CBS has immense promotional power. CBS can blanket its airwaves with promo spots that reach millions, and in this case it started the hype machine months ago. Showtime’s got good promo mojo too, but it lacks CBS’s massive reach—and that’s just the nature of premium cable vs. broadcast.
3.No One has a Crystal Ball – Simply put, you can never know in advance how shows will resonate. Under the Dome is a little bizarre. It could have just as easily tanked (in fact, many shows with a big “what if” premise have done just that). TV is like Blackjack: It helps to know what you’re doing, but it’s still a game of chance.
Several other factors affect TV success, including scheduling, what else is on, etc. CBS certainly did its homework and timed the premiere well. It also made sure to tailor the show to its audience, mixing the weird (the dome slices a cow in half during the pilot) with enough reliable archetypes and tropes to keep its tried-and-true NCIS crowd coming back for more.
If anything, Under the Dome tells us that broadcast TV is more than a sit-com, reality TV and procedural drama wasteland. Even boring ole’ CBS can pump out innovative and creative storytelling (especially when Showtime passes on it first). Still, broadcast nets aren’t going to lay down and let cable continue to steal Emmys, advertisers and audience with impunity. If you think otherwise, you must be living under a dome.
Playwright and filmmaker David Talbert is working with Disney Branded Television on a musical series, “Madelyn Square Gardens,” about a young woman from Mississippi who moves to New York with big Broadway
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