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The Disappearance of Without a Trace

I’m going to be honest – I’m not a fan of Without a Trace. I’ll confess to something resembling indifferent affection to Anthony LaPlagia, but I’ve never sat down and watched an episode. I do know lots of people who watch it regularly. Hell, based on the viewing figures, there are a lot of people who watch it regularly. So, as someone who never watched the show, I am still gravely worried by what I see: the recession is affecting networks so badly that they are being forced to cancel expensive high-budget dramas.

I wonder if the network cancelled it simply because of the amount of puns that journalists could make about Without a Trace going missing...

I wonder if the network cancelled it simply because of the amount of puns that journalists could make about a show called Without a Trace going missing...

So now we live in a world where not only will shows without audiences (which has an understandable Darwinist logic behind it – even if the show is still relatively young or has been screwed by the network), the networks will now cancel large scale successful television dramas. Sure, the only casualties at the moment are Without a Trace, Cold Case and Medium, but there will be more. I can understand the need to trim the fat, as it were, but there are a lot of “high-budget dramas” that could find themselves in the firing line. Networks aren’t exactly forthcoming with budgets for shows, but I managed to dig out some “cost-per-episode” estimates from various sources:

Battlestar Galactica (miniseries) $4.3m
Carnivale $4m
Cold Case $2.5m
Deadwood $5m
Friday Night Lights $1.8m
Law & Order: SVU $3m
Lost $4m
Spartacus $2m
The Wire $1.5m
Without a Trace $3m

It’s worth noting that most of the above are just estimates and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Still, the axing of Without a Trace indicates that anything with a budget of over $2m is at risk. It also worth noting that The Wire could be filmed on peanuts.

What really ticks me off – if the networks really are going down the “economic productions” line of thought – is that it means money will be spent were it gets the most value. Reality television. Estimates say that the shows can come in at under $950,000 per hour, which is half the budget of a decent no-frills scripted show, and about a third to a quarter of a “premium” production. It makes smart business sense, and I can’t fault them on that. As much as I despise these shows for patronising their audience, for dumbing down and being worthless scraps of voyeuristic pseudo-entertainment, people still watch them.

What scares me about the axing of Without a Trace, a very successful mainstream television show with a big enough budget, is what it means in the wider trend. If this is happening to existing shows with established audiences, what about pilots? Lost famously was the most expensive pilot produced for American television. With the studios think as they are now, why bother trying to create a respectable-looking drama when we can just have shallow people doing menial tasks while bitching about each other, and we don’t have to pay any actors or writers? Television isn’t a medium like film, where an independent producer and director can tour a circuit and pitch their product, it’s one that’s driven from the studios down.

The recession has arguably already had a similar hit on the major movie studios, with the closing of Fox Searchlight and Warner Brothers firmly rejecting the notion that independent awards-baiting films are a major part of their agenda at the moment.

That’s why, despite not watching any of the shows that have been cut, I am growing increasingly worried about the impact of the recession on entertainment.

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