More than 10 years after the networks first got the OK to own their own programming, they’re finally starting to show some restraint.
Rather than simply load up on fare from their sister studios, the webs appear to have made a concerted effort to look outside their own corporate walls for next fall’s new skeins.
As a result, the 2005 upfronts may be remembered most for ushering in TV’s vertical disintegration.
“This is recognition of the importance of the quality of execution of the pilots,” said Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth. “What’s most important to the public — and what should be most important to the networks — is where can we find the next great hit. What you’re seeing here is that no matter where the show is produced, that matters most.”
Warner Bros. TV will produce 32 series for primetime next season — easily dominating all rivals.
As impressive as that number sounds, Roth and many of his studio peers have long acknowledged that having a whole bunch of shows in production doesn’t necessarily equal success. Out of habit, some studios still keep a scorecard of who’s doing how much, but almost all view such a tally as worthless.
Instead, studio execs now prefer to emphasize returning shows headed for syndication (read: profitability) and maximizing their pilot-to-series ratio, so money isn’t wasted on pilots that never go anywhere.
By those standards, WBTV had an amazing development season. It scored 15 new series (11 for fall, four for midseason) out of 26 pilots — a 58% success rate. The studio also landed 17 returning skeins — another record for the company.
WBTV’s deal with Jerry Bruckheimer also continues to yield dividends, with Bruckheimer-produced skeins repping one-third of the studio’s overall roster (Daily Variety, May 18).
“It’s been a very good year,” Roth said. “It’ll be a great year when these well-crafted pilots turn into great series.”
Warner Bros. TV will now produce at least three series at each network and 22.5 hours of primetime overall. The willingness by nets ABC and NBC to tap outside studios was a boon to Roth in particular.
“In this world of vertical integration, every network has an affiliation with a studio, and every studio has an affiliation with a network,” Roth said. “It’s difficult to be demanding when those same demands can be made of you in another part of the company.”
Of course, the week didn’t go by without a few tense moments. The WB and 20th Century Fox TV, in particular, tussled over the renewal of “Reba” and pickup of “Pepper Dennis” and “Misconceptions.” The spat was eventually resolved (Daily Variety, May 16).
20th Century Fox TV presidents Gary Newman and Dana Walden said they, too, benefited from more open doors at the networks, scoring pickups at NBC, CBS and the WB — in addition to sister Fox. Studio also successfully launched low-cost indie shingle Fox 21, which now has a reality show (“Beauty and the Geek”) and a comedy series (“Free Birds”) to its credit.
“Every network realized that their health is dependent on scheduling the best shows in the right time periods,” said Newman, who said 20th had “an exceptional selling season” and “hit all the goals we set for ourselves last summer.”
Overall, just 33% of NBC’s new series are produced by NBC Universal TV Studio; 45% of ABC’s frosh fare comes from Touchstone; 57% of Fox’s from 20th Century Fox TV; and 63% of CBS’ entries from Paramount.
On the flip side, the weblets — which were born after the repeal of fin-syn rules and created for the explicit purpose of vertical integration — are staying true to their charter. A full 100% of UPN’s new series come from Par, while 75% of the WB’s frosh entries are produced by Warner Bros. TV.
Meanwhile, boutique operations like Regency TV are hungry to expand their presence at the webs now that they see a few more open doors.
“This season we’re going to make a huge effort to make sure we have pilots outside of the family,” said Regency TV topper Robin Schwartz, whose production company produces or co-produces all of News Corp. sib Fox’s Friday night lineup. “We have the ability to do it and would love to take more shots.”
Past season saw several big changes on the studio scene, including new leaders at Paramount, Touchstone Television and the newly minted NBC Universal Television Studio.
After years of sparring with Par management, Viacom co-prexy Leslie Moonves sought to integrate Par into the CBS fold as quickly as possible by tapping a trusted aide — CBS and Warner Bros. TV vet David Stapf — to take over as prexy of Paramount Network Television.
Though he got into the game late in the development season, Stapf had a fine rookie year, landing nine new series orders vs. five last year under the old regime.
“To me it’s never about the numbers and how many, it’s about how many do you return,” he said. “To that end, ‘Numbers’ is a show that, as a company, I’m the most proud of.”
And while all of Stapf’s new shows will be on Viacom nets, exec said he remains committed to finding projects for other nets as well, such as Par-produced NBC hit “Medium.”
Over at Touchstone, business affairs vet Mark Pedowitz took over from Steve McPherson when latter exec became ABC Entertainment prexy. Big breakthrough for the studio: Setting up major projects at CBS and NBC, thus expanding its reach beyond ABC.
“Touchstone established itself as third-party supplier to outside networks,” Pedowitz said. “The old bugaboo is gone.”
Picture was a bit fuzzier over at NUTS. Studio focused its efforts on the Peacock, but the network ultimately chose to pick most of its new fare from outside suppliers. On the plus side, NUTS-produced “House” has emerged as a major hit for Fox, and if that success continues next season, the studio is looking at a very lucrative syndie backend for the medical drama.
“Given the needs of the network, we would have loved 100 percent of their pickups, but that’s not possible,” said NUTS prexy Angela Bromstad. “We feel good about what we do have.”
Bromstad was particularly pleased about the return of “The Office” on the Peacock, and has high hopes for “Fathom.”
Development season saw some clear-cut disappointments as well.
Sony Pictures Television took a big hit when CBS killed “Joan of Arcadia,” denying the studio a signature network drama, while fall newbie “Clubhouse” quickly struck out. And a plan to skirt the network development process by developing a pilot inhouse — the comedy “Uncommon Sense” — didn’t seem to work. Not only did NBC pass, but no other nets seem interested, leaving the studio holding the bag for most of the production costs.
On the positive tip, Sony has a piece of Gavin Polone’s Pariah TV-produced “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” an ABC midseason entry that seemed to play well at the upfronts.