In 2001, Fox (NASDAQ: FOXA ) experimented with a radical concept -- a season-long show shot in real time that was comprised of 24 episodes each representing one hour of the day. Fittingly titled 24, the drama starring Emmy-winner Kiefer Sutherland was buzzworthy from the beginning. As the network prepares to restart the clock tonight, it's interesting to look back at how the series affected the business of television.
24 didn't just become a pop culture smash, it became a new model for TV executives. The idea of using a real-time plot device didn't originate with 24; the show just perfected it.
What 24 eventually became was one of the first "next generation" TV shows. The 24 episode/24 hour concept was an early version of "event TV" and it was a test case. Crafting a series of this magnitude was shocking and groundbreaking. It couldn't have been easy for the show's producers to walk into Fox (or any network) and pitch this concept, but it set the stage for future shows like it...not necessarily time-centric ones, but edgier, grittier, and darker concepts that might have otherwise been dismissed.
One concern that proved to be legitimate was that 24 required an insane commitment from the network and an even more insane commitment from fans. Ultimately both turned out to be up for the challenge, but as executives learned, the fan's patience had a limit. The length of your typical TV season results in a "stop/start" approach to programming and even with 24's extra two episodes (beyond the usual 22-episode order), that still resulted in a number of what amounted to "bye" weeks.
Fans began to get tired of waiting weeks at a time for the next new installment and it didn't help that each episode ended with a cliffhanger. Eventually in order to keep tis fanbase happy, executives made the radical and bold move of holding 24 back from its usual fall launch and in season 4 launched it at midseason where it would run continuously for the full season.
Not only did it work, but many credit it with pushing the series creatively to a new level. It was that season in which both Sutherland and the series won the Emmy, and the following season scored its highest ratings ever; an average of 13 million viewers.
Again, holding back a network lynchpin until the winter/spring timeframe couldn't have been an easy suggestion, but it worked and ABC wisely later borrowed the approach with Lost and to some extent tweaked it last year with its "split-season" approach.
Fast forward nearly 10 years and 24 is about to change the model again. This season Fox has changed its network strategy to reflect today's time-shifted, binge-watching, DVR-heavy culture. The network is doubling-down on a limited run "event" series. These are shows that are only meant to run for a brief time in an effort to entice gun-shy viewers to feel safe tuning in.
While Cosmos was technically the first of that new wave, 24 will be the yardstick to measure against as its more in line with the typical "scripted" fare of this genre. The twist here though is that instead of 24's usual 24-episode model, the mini-series subtitled Live Another Day, will unfold over just 12 episodes, but still take part over 24 hours and still keep the real-time format. Now it has the ability to time jump a little without having to show all the action on screen ... something that will benefit the series.
Launching during May sweeps and running throughout the summer, Fox has positioned this at a smart time for the network. Should it work (and it likely will), executives will not only get strong ratings during the summer months where viewership is lower, they'll be able promote its presumed initial success this month during its annual upfront presentation to advertisers in New York. Keep in mind Fox still has two more "event" limited-run series on its roster (Wayward Pines and Gracepoint) and that could translate to big ad revenue for all involved.
The revival of 24 comes at an interesting time as many networks are beginning to look back at the past for new creative ideas. Chief among them is NBC, which last year successfully brought back the live TV musical and next year will revive Heroes. Unlike Heroes though 24 realized when it was time to call it a day. The series suffered a sizable drop in numbers between season 7 and season 8, which was a sign it needed a break.
Keeping Sutherland's character alive at the end of the show's run was never guaranteed but from a financial perspective it was the only option that made sense. When Bauer walked into the sunset (literally) at the end of the show's final episode talks immediately began about a big-screen version. Eventually those discussions stalled and so when Live Another Day got announced it was a major surprise.
24 still has that loyal audience and Jack Bauer will forever remain one of TV's most iconic characters, which is why Day is a smart move and one that could lead to more projects down the line.
With 24 time never stopped, it just stood still.
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