What was supposed to be another bullish season for Warner Bros. TV has turned into a disappointment.
Having landed more high-profile commitments than any other studio last May, WBTV — easily TV’s most prolific studio, and one of the few not tied to a Big Four broadcast net — is struggling as most of its frosh players failed to live up to lofty expectations.
A year ago, the studio sparked a bidding war between NBC and CBS after showing the nets spec scripts for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “The Class.” Now, both shows are barely hanging on, but will produce more episodes as will ABC’s “Men in Trees.”
Likewise, ABC gave the critically hailed new drama “The Nine” a monster promo push, but it’s clinging to life.
Even WBTV’s biggest player — Jerry Bruckheimer — hasn’t been able to deliver a winner. His Fox drama “Justice” has stumbled badly.
“It’s been a tough year for network television, and it’s been a particularly tough year for us,” concedes WBTV prexy Peter Roth.
What makes this fall so painful for WBTV is that so many of its new assets seemed to have everything going for them, from great timeslots to critical raves.
So what happened? Roth says no one factor is behind the studio’s fall failure.
“This has been a confluence of bad timing, bad fortune and ideas that are either already represented on the air or aren’t breaking through with the public,” he says.
In particular, WBTV debuted several serialized skeins during a season deluged by such shows.
“There was a plethora of hard-to-follow and at times overly complicated storytelling,” Roth says. “And it seemed to hit all at once.”
Network execs argue WBTV lived up to its end of the studio-network bargain by delivering shows that were in good shape creatively.
“They’ve been terrific partners,” insists ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson. ” ‘The Nine’ couldn’t have been done any better than it was.”
One webhead says WBTV’s woes this year simply reflect the fact that so much of the TV business is a roll of the dice, particularly when more than 80% of all new shows fail. The difference is that this year’s crop is more expensive.
The good news for WBTV is that it has a deep bench of existing hits, many of which are having solid seasons.
Long-running “ER,” for example, is once again handily winning its Thursday timeslot.
Likewise, CBS is happy with how WBTV-produced Bruckheimer dramas “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” are doing in their new Sunday slots. Ditto “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” which has turned into a good companion for TV’s top half-hour laffer, the WBTV- produced “Two and a Half Men.”
WBTV has also diversified into cable production in recent years (“Nip/Tuck,” “The Closer”), while it still extracts hundreds of millions in off-net coin out of past hits, from “Friends” to “Mama’s Family.” A powerful international arm also lets WBTV fetch sizable coin from even duds like last season’s “Invasion.”
In a way, the studio’s annus horriblis was bound to happen. While other suppliers have trimmed their rosters and become more cautious in development, WBTV still boasts a star-studded slate of scribes. It regularly develops more scripts and pilots than any other studio, exposing it to more risks.
Roth says he sees no reason to change his strategy, pointing to the long list of syndicatable shows the studio has birthed in the past decade, from “The West Wing” and “Smallville” to “George Lopez” and “Two and a Half Men.”
“We are not afraid to swing for the fences,” Roth says. “But you can’t hit ’em out of the park every year.”
20th Century Fox TV
It was a quiet fall for 20th Century Fox TV — and that might turn out to be a good thing for the studio’s bottom line.
Some industry wags were surprised when 20th ended up with only three new shows on the fall skeds, and just two with sister net Fox Broadcasting. However, given the track record for frosh skeins this fall — particularly at Fox — it could be argued that 20th ended up dodging a bullet.
Indeed, both shows 20th produced for Fox have struggled. Kidnapping drama “Vanished” will soon disappear completely, while “Standoff” hasn’t been a Nielsen standout.
Still, Gary Newman and Dana Walden, who head up 20th, are hoping Fox will order more episodes of “Standoff,” giving it a shot at relaunching after “American Idol” returns in January.
And CBS has already ordered a full season of 20th’s other fall contender, the James Woods starrer “Shark.” Ratings haven’t been spectacular, but they have been steady — and the Eye has a history of being patient.
“In the past couple episodes both shows have hit their strides creatively,” Walden says, while Newman calls “Shark” a “legitimate hit.”
With so few newbies to worry about, Walden and Newman say their focus has been on the studio’s soph skeins: “Prison Break,” “Bones” and laffers “How I Met Your Mother” and “My Name Is Earl.”
“We measure our success differently than the networks,” he says. “Their measure is ratings. Our business is the ancillary distribution of these shows.”
And by that measure, Walden says, “Our sophomore shows are going to be long-term players.”
NBC U TV
Having the top-rated new show of the year is always good. It’s even better when your sister studio is producing the show.
That’s the situation NBC finds itself. Not only is “Heroes” the clear-cut hit of the season, but it’s also wholly owned by NBC Universal Television Studio.
Success of “Heroes” marks a turning point of sorts for the studio and topper Angela Bromstad, giving the exec her first breakout hit since taking sole control of the studio two years ago.
“It’s so strange not to have studio envy,” Bromstad jokes. She says she’s finally happy with her studio’s roster of creative talent and execs.
“I feel like we’re now coming together as a studio. It’s taken a while to put that together.”
One reason for the studio’s success this fall: Any tensions that may have existed with the Peacock seem to have dissipated, particularly when it came to developing “Heroes.” Former studio exec Katherine Pope’s move to the network side is said to have been key to smoothing things out.
“We all had the same vision with development (last season),” Bromstad says. “There wasn’t that territory thing of, ‘This is your show’ or ‘This is my show.’ ”
Studio’s other big bets with NBC this fall — “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock” — have been slower to find their audiences, but Peacock execs are looking to order more episodes of both
As for veteran skeins, NBC U-produced “House” remains a monster for Fox, while “The Office” is one of the few comedy success stories on network TV.
The “Law & Order” brand also remains solid, though the original skein is struggling on Fridays.
Thanks to “Ugly Betty,” it’s been a beautiful fall for Touchstone.
Studio’s Thursday hit has helped sibling ABC make inroads on a night that used to a wasteland. Touchstone prexy Mark Pedowitz calls it “the little show that could.”
“Even though it had so much international success, people didn’t know if it would make it,” he says. “But it’s given us another show that could last for many, many years and another show with a diverse cast that we can sell in the international marketplace.”
Touchstone has also seen solid numbers for “Brothers & Sisters,” which has overcome negative pre-season buzz to snag a full season order from ABC. Not doing so well: “Six Degrees,” has vacated the post-“Grey’s Anatomy” timeslot having failed to click with auds.
On the returning series front, successful move of “Grey’s” to Thursday has the studio anxiously awaiting millions in backend coin. Likewise, execs at the studio and net credit “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry with getting his show back on track creatively.
Pedowitz argues that, while a number of serialized skeins have struggled this fall, studios should be pleased with the quality of their output.
“This is a year where no one could say there was a poorly produced drama on the air,” he says.
CBS Paramount Network Television
CBS Par’s fall has been da bomb. As in, the nuclear bomb at the heart of its spooky suspense drama “Jericho.”
While nowhere near as big a hit as “Heroes” or “Ugly Betty,” “Jericho” has helped CBS get some traction Wednesdays at 8, a timeslot that’s long tortured the net. Skein, already ordered for a full season, has given the Eye some much-needed pop culture buzz with a show that involves no dead bodies.
CBS Par also successfully launched “The Game” on new stepsibling the CW. It’s been ordered for a full season as well.
“It feels good to be batting .1000,” jokes CBS Par Network TV prexy David Stapf, who acknowledges he was “personally disappointed” his studio only landed two new shows on the fall skeds.
That said, “We really put a lot of effort and concern into growing existing shows.” And on that count, CBS Par has had a very solid fall.
“Criminal Minds” and “Ghost Whisperer,” both co-productions with Touchstone Television, have had stellar sophomore seasons. “Minds” is even beating timeslot rival “Lost” in total viewers.
And while the original “CSI” has taken a ratings hit opposite “Grey’s Anatomy,” Stapf says he’s not concerned: “Creatively, the show’s having the best year they’ve ever had.”
Sony Pictures Television
As with Warner Bros., Sony’s fall slate fell victim to viewers’ seeming backlash against crime-themed serialized dramas.
After seeing the well-done pilot, rival nets were concerned that “Kidnapped”– Sony’s biggest drama gun — had the potential to be a breakout hit. Instead, viewers weren’t interested in following a season-long storyline about a missing child.
Studio’s CW drama “Runaway” also had an ongoing storyline, but it’s hard to say viewers rejected it. Instead, the show seemed to fall through the cracks as the new CW ignored it to focus on launching other skeins.
Jamie Erlicht, who runs Sony’s TV production arm with Zach Van Amburg, says it was hard for frosh skeins to stand out from the pack this fall.
“Viewers have more good shows to choose from than they have in a decade,” he says. “It’s tough to break in with a new show when they have so many must-sees on their plate.”
While its two dramas didn’t work out, Sony still has high hopes for Fox laffer ” ‘Til Death,” which is a fave of network execs. ABC is also giving a big push to the studio’s “Big Day,” which bows later this month.
Studio also remains a cable player, with “Rescue Me,” “The Shield” and projects at Showtime, Comedy Central and AMC.