ABC’s ‘Resurrection’ and NBC’s ‘Believe’ -- The Business of Fantasy Dramas

Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) /ABC's Resurrection, which got off to a strong start on March 9 with 13.3 million viewers, could be losing its magic mojo.

8.8 million viewers watched the fourth episode of the fantasy series, surprisingly less than the 10.4 million viewers who watched CBS' (NYSE: CBS  ) The Good Wife. However, Resurrection still fared better than Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) /NBC's competing fantasy show Believe, which only attracted 4.9 million viewers with its fourth episode -- a steep decline from the 10.6 million viewers who tuned in for its premiere. All three shows air on Sundays at 9 p.m.

Both Resurrection and Believe were heavily promoted by the networks. Resurrection is produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, which also produced the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. Believe was co-created by Alfonso Cuarón, the acclaimed director of Gravity and Children of Men, and co-produced by modern sci-fi maestro J.J. Abrams.

Resurrection. (Source: ABC)

Recreating Lost doesn't work
Both shows are part of the "mysterious fantasy" genre spawned from ABC's hit series Lost, which dangled a carrot of increasingly complex mysteries in front of audiences to keep them tuned in. That formula seems simple, but none of the shows after Lost recaptured the magic of the island for a simple reason -- they all focused on molding unsolvable mysteries rather than developing relatable characters.

Shows like Awake, Alcatraz, Flashforward, and The Event all tried to recreate Lost's magic formula with mind-bending mysteries, but all of them slipped away after strong premiere episodes:

Show

Number of seasons

Premiere audience (millions)

Finale audience (millions)

Flashforward (ABC)

1

12.47

4.96

The Event (NBC)

1

10.88

4.89

Awake (NBC)

1

6.24

2.87

Alcatraz (Fox (NASDAQ: FOX  ) )

1

10.05

4.75

Source: Wikipedia.

People might find a mystery intriguing at first, but few viewers have the patience to be teased with it for an entire season, especially after Lost disappointed fans with its infamous "everyone's dead" ending.

Fantasy dramas need more compelling storytellers
Resurrection makes many of the same mistakes as those shows -- it is populated by stiff characters revolving around a core mystery of loved ones returning from the dead. That central mystery keeps the show moving, but the show often grinds to a halt due to flat writing and direction for otherwise capable actors such as Omar Epps, Frances Fisher, Devin Kelley, and Kurtwood Smith.

By comparison, Lost worked because the characters' flashbacks revealed stark contrasts between their past lives and island personas. At many times, the actual mystery of the island felt secondary to character development.

Believe. (Source: NBC)

Believe, which focuses on a girl with powerful psychic powers and her former death row inmate guardian, is a more coherent show than Resurrection. Unfortunately, it turned a promising premise into a procedural "case of the week" show in which the unlikely pair help people in need.

In that sense, it closely resembles Fox's father-son team up series Touch, which was canceled after the 12.01 million viewers who watched its premiere dwindled to a mere 2.42 million by its second season finale.

How do ratings translate into dollars?
The series finale of Lost in 2010, which drew 13.5 million viewers, commanded a whopping $900,000 for a 30-second advertising slot for bookings closer to the air date. The same spots had cost an average price of $213,563 if reserved earlier.

CBS' The Big Bang Theory is currently the leader in non-NFL advertising rates on network television with a rate of $326,000 per 30-second spot. AMC's (NASDAQ: AMCX  ) The Walking Dead is the 800-pound gorilla on cable television, with an ad rate of $600,000 per spot. The Big Bang Theory attracted an average of 15 million to 20 million viewers during its most recent season, while The Walking Dead was watched by 11 million to 16 million viewers.

The Big Bang Theory. (Source: CBS)

Those are clearly the numbers that networks are aiming for. According to Ad Age's annual survey of advertisers, Resurrection is worth approximately $138,000 per spot to advertisers, while Believe is worth $77,000. CBS' The Good Wife, which competes for the same time slot, is worth $70,000. Unfortunately, those estimates were taken prior to the premieres of Resurrection and Believe, and advertisers probably aren't thrilled that viewership respectively declined 34% and 54% between their first and fourth episodes.

What do Resurrection and Believe mean for ABC and NBC?
Resurrection could be a failure for ABC, which is currently being trampled by the other major networks among 18-49 year olds. Meanwhile, Believe might just be a rare miss for NBC, which has made a roaring comeback after being crushed last year by CBS.

According to Nielsen ratings for the 27 weeks of the 2013-14 broadcast television season, NBC is in first place in that key 18-49 demographic with a 2.9 average rating -- a 21% jump from last season, thanks to the Winter Olympics, The Blacklist, and The Voice. Fox climbed 4% to a 2.6 rating, but CBS unexpectedly slid 20% to a 2.4 rating. ABC fell 9% to a 2.1 rating, only finishing ahead of Univision and the CW.

In terms of total average viewers, CBS claimed the top spot with 10.8 million viewers, followed by NBC with 9.9 million, Fox with 7.8 million, and ABC with 7.5 million. This means that Resurrection's 8.8 million viewers remain above ABC's network average, while Believe's 4.9 million viewers is far below NBC's. Therefore, it's very possible that Believe could be axed before Resurrection.

The bottom line
It's doubtful that Resurrection can turn around Disney's long-running problems at ABC, which accounts for the bulk of its broadcasting segment. Last quarter, Disney's broadcasting revenue slipped 2% year-over-year. Meanwhile, Believe's ratings are disappointing to Comcast's NBC network, but its broadcast television revenue rose 11.5% last quarter -- putting it in a stronger position than ABC.

The next step for you
Now that we understand what types of TV shows work and don't work on primetime TV, how can average investors turn those advertising dollars into portfolio gains? Check out The Motley Fool's free guide to investing to understand which media companies are hidden gems and which ones are chunks of coal.

 


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