NBC, DirecTV pact on football drama

Friday Night Lights” fans were handed the equivalent of a Super Bowl victory on Monday as NBC and DirecTV confirmed that the ensembler has been renewed for two seasons.

The new pact covers the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, which will consist of 13 segs apiece. It continues the innovative partnership between the Peacock and the satcaster that saved “FNL” from cancellation this season, the third for the Peabody-winning series revolving around a high school football team in a small Texas town. Series, shot in Austin, Texas, hails from Brian Grazer’s Imagine TV, Peter Berg’s Film 44 shingle and Universal Media Studios.

DirecTV will get the first window on the episodes, to run commercial-free as the marquee property on its 101 Network channel, which is rapidly adding new and library product with appeal to TV aficionados from Hollywood’s majors (Daily Variety, March 23). This season, DirecTV ran the 13 episodes comprising “FNL’s” third season in the fall, while NBC’s run began in January.

Although the show has a loyal core aud, “FNL” has had a hard time drawing a broadcast net-sized aud. But the license fee NBC receives from DirecTV makes it financially feasible for the Peacock to continue with the show, which lends an aura of quality to the net’s sked at a time when NBC is struggling to rebuild its roster of scripted series.

It’s understood that DirecTV’s license fee covers just under half of “FNL’s” weekly production budget of a little more than $2 million per hour, which is modest by broadcast net standards.

The additional two seasons will bring “FNL’s” episode tally to 76. Universal and Imagine were eager to continue producing episodes to enhance the prospects for a syndication sale. Key cast members, include anchor stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, are set under long-term contracts.

Jason Katims, “FNL” exec producer and showrunner, told Daily Variety he was deeply grateful to NBC Entertainment co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff and to DirecTV programming chief Eric Shanks for the two-season lifeline. He also expressed his appreciation for the tireless support from Imagine’s Grazer and Imagine TV prexy David Nevins, and to exec producer Berg, who developed the “FNL” series based on the 2004 feature (which was based on the book of the same name by H.R. Bissinger) that Berg helmed for Imagine.

“As a TV writer, you rarely get that opportunity to know exactly what the life of your series is going to be,” Katims said. “Down to every last person who works on this show, we are invested and passionate about the future.”

NBC and U, meanwhile, see the DirecTV arrangement and deals like it as a pathway to a future where shows with small but passionate core auds can flourish. “FNL” is essentially following the cable series production model of shorter episode orders (13 rather than 22), more runs of each episodes and significantly smaller budgets than the $3 million-plus that has become the episodic norm for broadcast dramas.

“We have to look for new and different ways to make our shows,” said Angela Bromstad, prexy of primetime entertainment for NBC and Universal Media Studios. (Bromstad only recently moved into her current post, but she was head of the erstwhile NBC U Television Studio when “FNL” was developed in 2005 and 2006.)

“What Ben and Marc have done with DirecTV has turned out to be a great deal and an amazing partnership,” she said. “We wish (“FNL”) had a bigger audience, but it has a very solid fan base, a great cast and a great leader. Jason is such a talented writer. He makes exceptional television.”

Imagine’s Grazer and Nevins were celebrating another down-to-the-wire win after the official word came down Monday that DirecTV was firmly on board for the two-season deal. The Peacock and the satcaster had been in talks on the pickup for weeks, but early last week the deal nearly fell apart over money issues. In a sign of affinity for the show among the various constituencies, the conversations resumed a day later and the final agreement was sealed midday Monday.

“This show always seems to find new ground about what’s possible in television, both creatively and what we’re can do on the business end,” Nevins said. “It’s really a symbol of the different ways that good television can be made these days.”

The specifics of when “FNL” will resume production and whether the fourth season will bow in the fall are still to be worked out. Katims at present is shepherding another pilot for NBC and Imagine, a redo of 1989′s “Parenthood,” and the fate of that pilot will likely impact the sked for “FNL.”

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