More powerful than your average series. Able to leap from comicbook to studio to network to homevideo at a single bound. Look! On the air! It’s “Friends.” It’s “ER.” No, it’s “Smallville.”
The hit WB series, experiencing a creative and rating renaissance in its fifth season, represents one of those diamonds in the rough for conglom Time Warner: A show that reaches across the company as a perfect example of synergy.
Warner Bros.’ DC Comics owns the rights to the Superman character; Warner Bros. TV produces “Smallville,” a teenage take on the titan in tights; the WB airs the show (seen via affils on Time Warner cable systems in many parts of the country); Warner Bros.’ distribution units sell the show internationally and into domestic syndication; Warner Home Video releases the “Smallville” DVD; the cycle starts again.
The synergy once even hit Warner Music, which released a “Smallville” CD back when it was still owned by Time Warner.
“The ideal property to exploit for our studio is a franchise property like ‘Smallville,’ ” says Warner Bros. TV Group topper Bruce Rosenblum. “This takes advantage of our DC Comics division, our distribution strength via the WB, our top-supplier studio Warner Bros. TV and our homevideo operations, all working in concert together.”
Now, the success of “Smallville” has even helped bring a theatrical movie to fruition. Bryan Singer is directing “Superman Returns,” starring Brandon Routh as the latest Clark Kent.
It’s easy to underestimate how “Smallville” helped jumpstart an entire franchise. But prior to Tom Welling taking over as Clark Kent, the Superman character had been limping along for several years.
The last major Superman TV show, “Lois & Clark,” suffered dismal ratings toward the end of its run. And Superman hadn’t had a movie presence in years.
The WB first got an inkling that Superman was still cool in 1997, when the net started airing an animated series (with Tim Daly voicing the main character) starring the Man of Steel — from Warner Bros. Animation, of course. Still, there was no guarantee that “Smallville” would work, no matter how much corporate synergy there was.
“Much like the magic of finding the right cast for ‘Friends’ or ‘ER,’ these very successful franchises come along only every so often,” Rosenblum says. “A network timeslot alone doesn’t guarantee success. And creative auspices alone don’t guarantee success.”
But in this case, the stars did align. WB Entertainment president David Janollari says several factors led to the show’s success, including Welling, and the “fresh take on Superman’s teenage years and the consistent quality of the show.” And, of course, “the cohesive way divisions like DC, Warner Bros. TV, the WB and the producers have worked closely together to produce a hundred different episodes that remain true to the character’s inherent tone and mythology,” he says.
Next up, Warner Bros. hopes to have another franchise success story with “Aquaman,” another DC Comics character that’s about to hit the small screen.
The WB (which will transform into the newly created CW network) is in development with “Smallville” showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar to bring that story to life.
“It’s hardly a slam-dunk, because the process of developing, creating, producing and launching a big franchise is daunting,” Janollari says, “but when it does work, it reminds you why media conglomerates are so powerful.”