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Drama producers try to find ways to keep distracted viewers engaged

May 12, 2011 | 10:48 am


The creators of CBS's "The Good Wife" don't care if you have to go to the bathroom.

Fans of the legal drama have probably noticed that it takes a long time for the first commercial break to come along. Typically, the show's opening act runs eight minutes before the opening credits roll; last week's episode had a marathon 15-minute arc before the first commercial break.

That's no accident. The show's creators, Robert and Michelle King, want to rope viewers in so they resist the urge to channel surf or play with their iPad while Alicia Florrick figures out how to deal with her cheating husband Peter.

"When do you want to let people have a bathroom break, one minute into telling them the story or 15 minutes?" said Robert King, who added that the goal was to "get the viewer 'pregnant' with the premise of that episode."

The long intro is just one ploy drama producers are trying to keep viewers engaged. Of this season's 22 dramas that launched, only five are serious candidates to return for a second season. While some shows flopped because they just didn't work, there is also a sense among producers that it is getting harder for viewers to put down their other devices and focus on the TV screen.

Much like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and talk while sailing down the freeway, network executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

"Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs," said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery "Castle." "If you don't capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don't have a chance."

Indeed, research conducted in 2009 by Ball State University's Center for Media Design backs up the theory of the distracted viewer. According to the center, about 20% of television watchers are also playing with computers or other media at the same time. And that study was conducted before the iPad was released and the iPhone really took off. The figure is certainly higher now, said Michael Holmes, the center's director of insight and research.

When a computer or iPad is on, the television quickly becomes "the second-most important screen in the room" Holmes said. "The Internet is a very engaging, interactive medium, so your attention is on that and the television recedes into the background."

For more on distracted viewers and how producers are trying to adjust, see our story in Thursday's Los Angeles Times: A dramatic decline for network dramas.

-- Joe Flint

Photo:  Alicia (Julianna Margulies, right) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) on CBS's "The Good Wife." Credit: David M. Russell / CBS