We always knew that nasty old rascal, J.R. Ewing, had it in him, didn’t we? One of the most amoral characters in the history of American television, the man that, for years defined “sleazily rich,” has returned in an updated version of his classic TV series, Dallas. And wouldn’t you know it? J.R. will be making piles of money all over again -- this time, for his show’s producer and its broadcaster -- which both happen to be units of the same company.
Revisit, don’t reboot
The new version of Dallas, produced by Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) subsidiary Warner Horizon Television, premiered on the media conglomerate’s TNT channel last week. And it really “killed” -- to use Hollywood slang -- in the TV ratings. It garnered an audience of 6.9 million people, which is superb for a cable show. By contrast, the celebrated 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, on rival channel AMC, operated by AMC Networks (Nasdaq: AMCX ) , pulled in less than three million for its most recent season finale.
Much of that is probably due to timing. These days, TV doesn’t really have a proper, old-fashioned, nighttime soap opera. There are plenty of prime time scripted dramas, sure, but these tend to be either brainy, sophisticated character-driven offerings in the Mad Men vein, or police/legal procedurals. Outside of that, comedy is the flavor of this year, with all major networks, and more than a few cable channels, ordering sitcoms to fill their programming gaps in the coming fall season.
Reality TV, thanks to its hooky set-ups and relatively cheap production costs, is still going strong in its numerous guises. Hoofing competition Dancing With the Stars on Disney’s (NYSE: DIS ) ABC, for example, has been a durable hit over more than a decade, scoring a powerful viewership number of 17.5 million in its latest series finale. The season that just ended of CBS’s (NYSE: CBS ) long-running outdoor endurance contest, Survivor, wasn’t the show’s most popular, but the old warhorse still clocked in at over 10 million viewers for its final episode.
Dallas conveniently fills the gap between these types of programs, delivering straightforward TV melodrama packed with the usual fun stuff -- lust, greed, crime, environmental devastation, etc. But what the show really has going for it is familiarity, with characters like bad old J.R., who have become iconic TV figures over the years. This guarantees free and compelling publicity (the Ewings are back!), and ropes in devotees of the old series.
Smartly, in bringing back the show, its creators didn’t go the reboot route so popular in Hollywood, as with Sony’s (NYSE: SNE ) upcoming superhero movie The Amazing Spider-Man (which, according to some reports, cost around $220 million to produce). Rather, they approached the material as a continuation of the original series, dropping in on J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen thirty years or so after we stopped following their lives.
In one stroke, this both attracts the devotees while providing a chance to update the subject matter, and introduces fresh new characters played by actors from the ever-desirable 18 to 34 year old demographic.
Shows that perform well on ad-supported cable can really take in the bucks. Look at how AMC Networks has been doing of late -- in its 2012 1Q, its ad sales rose nearly 30% year-on-year and, as a consequence, overall revenue grew almost 20% to total $326 million.
That company’s performance is heavily based on that of its flagship cable channel, and said channel only aired fresh episodes of two of its original-scripted series during the quarter -- specifically, the zombie drama The Walking Dead, a huge success, and less popular western, Hell on Wheels.
What does all this mean? Cablers can really turn around a channel with only one or two shows. This is encouraging news for Time Warner shareholders, as TV is a critical part of the company’s operations. In 1Q of this year, for example, its networks, which also include TBS and HB,) produced $3.6 billion in revenue -- more than half of the firm’s grand total. That $3.6 billion also eclipsed the $2.8 billion take from the company’s storied Warner Bros. film studio.
Blowing up the ratings
It’s a good thing TNT has been doing well lately. The week Dallas 2.0 premiered, the channel was basic cable’s No. 1 primetime network on three separate nights. Now, much of this was due to the fact that its other prime time scripted shows -- buddy female cop saga Rizzoli & Isles, legal dramedy Franklin & Bash, and alien invasion series Falling Skies -- all made their season debuts that week and had good viewership numbers. Regardless, it shows that the channel’s management knows what its audience wants and how to deliver it.
The 21st century Dallas, it seems, will not only fit comfortably among those shows, but even beat them in terms of popularity and loyalty. Retro seems to be winning the day for TNT and its big corporate parent. If the channel can continue to produce profit-making hits, like its old-new series, we can expect AMC-like revenue pops. Even a cranky, hard-to-please old capitalist like J.R. would be happy with that.
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