Sony’s TV division makes comeback

No network affiliation works in studio's favor

After wandering in the wilderness for a couple of years, Sony’s smallscreen division has re-emerged as a potent player in the biz — despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of a network partner.

So far this summer, it’s already lined up nine pilot orders from networks — far more than any other studio. It’s got four new series slated to bow during the upcoming season, and a 50% pilot-to-series ratio that’s the envy of its rivals.

Its cable biz remains dominant, with a mix of dramas (“The Shield,” “Rescue Me”), comedies (“My Boys,” “10 Items of Less”) and newer fare (“Damages,” “Breaking Bad”). And while critics are unimpressed, Sony has two sophomore sitcoms (“‘Til Death,” “Rules of Engagement”) that could result in major syndication paydays if they can find some traction next season.

Throw in a vigorous international sales arm, a healthy syndie presence (“Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Seinfeld”), a dogged determination to survive in the challenged businesses of both telepics and sudsers (“Days of Our Lives,” “The Young and the Restless”) and a growing footprint in digital distribution, and it’s hard to believe this is the same TV studio some had written off for dead just a few years ago.

Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Michael Lynton gives a big chunk of the credit to Sony Pictures TV prexy Steve Mosko.

“Steve really rebuilt the business,” Lynton says. “We still believe (in TV). I’m not saying it’s the easiest business in the world, but Steve has done a brilliant job in … making it a good one.”

Sony’s comeback is sweet, given the number of premature obits prompted by Sony Corp. chair and CEO Howard Stringer’s October 2001 announcement that he was getting Sony out of the roster-driven TV business. Most TV players were convinced the town was losing a key indie supplier, but it turns out Sony simply wanted to change its TV paradigm, not get out of TV completely.

Still, there was pain.

About one-third of the company’s staffers were let go, and a slew of overall deals were chopped. Exec ranks were also streamlined, with network, syndie and cable development and production put under the combined stewardship of presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg.

“There were some tough times,” Mosko concedes. “But everyone hung together, and we got through it. We couldn’t have done this if a lot of those key people hadn’t stuck around.”

It turns out the one handicap many believed would ultimately sink Sony — it doesn’t own or co-own a broadcast TV network, like all the other majors — actually was key to its revival.

That’s because, without a network sibling around to call dibs on its best development — thus driving down its market value — Sony has consistently figured out a way to command highly lucrative pilot deals from commitment-phobic webheads. As a result, news stories about the sale of Sony projects often contain phrases like “bidding war.”

“Four out of five network presidents have yelled at us this year,” Erlicht admits, only half-jokingly. “But we’re not saddled with that responsibility (of supplying shows to a sister net). We can look at the entire television landscape and figure out where a show makes the most sense.”

Van Amburg says the strategy “allows the cream to rise to the top. We don’t have a corporate agenda where senior management is saying, ‘This needs to go here because we own it.’ ”

Despite its recent success stories, Sony’s TV budget is still much smaller than most studios, and that’s by design: The company makes very few big overall deals with writers and has just a handful of pacts with nonwriting producers.

“We’ve been forced to get more innovative,” Erlicht says. “We couldn’t compete for the $6 million J.J. Abrams deals, so instead we concentrated on getting into business with writers we were passionate about, who weren’t as well-known in the network biz. We also have a certain number of deals with nonwriters, and they’ve been a fantastic pipeline into their respective agencies.”

While it doesn’t spend big bucks on many overalls, Sony does step up big time when it comes to one-off script deals, often blowing away competitors by paying well above market value for writers it wants to deal with. Mosko also loosened the purse strings in order to land a deal for a new company run by Mitch Hurwitz (“Arrested Development”) and Eric & Kim Tannenbaum (“Two and a Half Men”).

Mosko says Lynton and co-chief Amy Pascal are fully briefed on major deals and keep an eye on development.

“Everything going on here, they know inside and out,” he says. “But they absolutely give us the autonomy to do our jobs. It’s our business to succeed with or fail with.”

In turn, Mosko gives his lieutenants plenty of room to breathe. It helps that he has a broader portfolio than most TV execs.

In addition to overseeing original production of network, cable, daytime and syndicated shows, Mosko is involved in Sony’s expanded digital efforts, from to the recently relaunched user-generated content site

“There really isn’t a television business at any other studio that’s set up the way we’re set up,” he says. “It makes the job much more exciting for me.”

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