Teaching old networks new tricks: Why scripted programming is everywhere

"Salem" premieres Sunday, April 20, at 10 p.m. on WGN America. Credit:
WGN America started out its scripted programming with “Salem,” but will soon move on to the Manhattan Project with “Manhattan.”
Credit: WGN America

WGN America is not a network that people are used to finding hourlong dramas on. But it’s experiencing a lot of success with its first scripted drama, “Salem” (already renewed for another season), a series that explores historic Salem during its witch hunt era, but with a few actual witches thrown in the mix. Between that and “Sleepy Hollow,” revisionist history is having a real moment. WGN America isn’t the only network to start taking steps into scripted programming, though. AMC, as “Salem” star Shane West pointed out when we spoke to him about his decision to try out a new network, was once known only for broadcasting movies, but has become synonymous with prestige programming. History, once the home of documentaries, has achieved tremendous success with its popular “Vikings” program, a slightly soapy look at the lives and loves of the Vikings, starring former model Travis Fimmel.

Even longtime reality home Bravo and celeb news source E! are venturing into original programming. Bravo is set to air “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce,” starring Lisa Edelstein and Janeane Garofalo, while E! is moving forward with plans for “Royals,” their first scripted show, which will star Elizabeth Hurley.

It’s not too surprising, says Terence Gray, founder of the New York Television Festival. The festival, which began in 2005, connects writers and producers to networks.

“I think in general drama and comedy is going through a golden age and I think some of the things that may have caused that are the viewing habits of the audience and how they can get access to those shows,” he says. Options like Amazon Prime and Netflix give viewers the opportunity to catch up between seasons on shows, meaning ongoing seasons of shows can accrue new viewers as time goes on. “The digital platforms that have allowed people to really access these great series and become loyal fans is a very positive thing.”

It’s a strong vote of confidence for the intrepid network keen to test the waters on new kinds of programming. And with the soaring success of “Mad Men” on AMC and movies ever more dependent on big budget blockbusters, it’s increasingly easy to attract big name talent to newer networks as television becomes known as the place where the exciting work is being made. Even tech giant Amazon has gotten in on the game, and Xbox and other nontraditional sources of programming seem likely to follow suit.


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