“Prison Break” got off to a promising start. Like “The X-Files” the show returned not only with the brothers but also with much of the cast intact. Might explain why “24: Legacy” is having a tougher time of it in spite of the football boost.
For me “Prison Break” will always be one of the best examples of how network executives can sometimes not grasp why a successful show is working and therefore miss the mark when they try to replicate its success.
“Lost” came on ABC at the start of the 2004-05 season and became an instant phenomenon. “Imitation is the greatest form of television” is a phrase often used in the biz, and the networks saw “Lost” as a development target for the 2005-06 season. Problem was, the networks never really understood why “Lost” worked. All they knew was that it was sci-fi.
Well, it wasn’t.
Fast forward to the start of the 2005 season and there were three attempts at emulating “Lost.” NBC put a show called “Surface” on the fall schedule. CBS premiered “Threshold,” and ABC not only tried their version of a “Lost” wannabe with a show called “Invasion” but put it on after “Lost,” which was a smart move. Problem was, none of these shows were “Lost,” and none of them lasted beyond their freshman year.
Back in the 2004-05 season we developed and piloted “Prison Break.” I believe that it was developed “off cycle,” which means we made it and tested it before the insane pilot deluge in April and May.
I had just been given oversight of research, and I brought in a smart executive from NBC, Melva Benoit, to run the department. “Prison Break” was the first pilot that was tested under the new administration. When the results came in Melva called me concerned at how strong it tested. She was worried that our boss, Gail Berman, would think we had juiced the test to make her feel good given that this was our first. We hadn’t.
What jumped out to me about the test were the strength of the venue (prison) and the deep roster of strong testing characters. It didn’t dawn on me until “Prison Break” premiered to solid ratings that, while the other networks were pursuing the next “Lost” by going down the sci-fi path, we had inadvertently stumbled upon “Lost” with “Prison Break.” I’ll leave it up to you to think about the connections.
Moral of the story: When you drill down a little deeper in what makes for a successful show, you often see connections between shows that, on the surface, do not appear all that similar. Think about “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Heroes,” for example.