Deal between CBS, 20th Century Fox falls apart

Never mind last month’s upfront rebound for the broadcast nets. If what just happened to Brett Ratner’s drama series “Chaos” is any indication, the primetime economy still hasn’t recovered.

Twentieth Century Fox TV’s “Chaos” should have been heading toward production on a midseason order for CBS right now. And if this were a few years ago — pre-economic slowdown and pre-writers’ strike — then perhaps CBS and 20th would have had an easier time ironing out their differences.

Instead, a deal between CBS and 20th Century Fox TV fell apart late Wednesday, and options for the show’s actors were allowed to expire.

Eye had given 20th a 13-episode order for the midseason drama two weeks ago — and both sides had figured out a license fee that they can live with. By Wednesday night, CBS was confirming that it had picked up the show — but 20th said no deal was finalized.

At issue: The economics underlying the show. “Chaos,” a satirical drama starring Freddy Rodriguez as a CIA agent forced to spy on his colleagues, was picked up several weeks after the mid-May upfront presentations (after the L.A. Screenings international sales confab was over), which meant 20th wasn’t expecting to land enough international licensing fees on the show to cover costs, even with the selling point of a pilot helmed by Ratner.

The studio informed CBS that the budget would have to be adjusted. But the Eye — worried that the show would suffer — asked the studio to submit budget documents. Eye also wanted to give approval on where “Chaos” would shoot.

CBS isn’t a co-producer on “Chaos,” however, and studios generally don’t allow networks to determine show budgets once a license fee is paid.

Eye at one point offered to take over production on the series through CBS TV Studios — but that was a non-starter for 20th, which developed the show. A co-production apparently wasn’t an option.

As a result, despite the verbal pickup, nothing was ever finalized, and the actors’ options expired at midnight.

With no firm deal on the show, and with the series thesps no longer under contract, it’s looking like “Chaos” succumbed to chaos.

That’s an increasingly common story in primetime, as the networks and studios realize that a series pickup doesn’t actually mean a series pickup if the spreadsheets don’t make sense.

In May, for example, NBC was very close to giving Dick Wolf what he wanted: A 21st season of “Law and Order.” NBC nonetheless cancelled that venerable series after it couldn’t make the economics work. (In that case, NBC’s issue wasn’t with sister Universal Media Studios but with Turner, which owned the off-network rights but wasn’t keen on taking another season, and producer Dick Wolf, whose fees couldn’t be adjusted.)

In another example, Sony Pictures TV dropped out of the Fox pilot “Running Wilde” when it decided that project likely wouldn’t have much upside (allowing Lionsgate to come in and take over production on the sitcom, which was ordered to series).

Here’s what’s unusual: In the case of all those shows, including “Chaos,” the network in question was interested in picking up the series. But if it doesn’t make financial sense, studios are more willing these days to turn those deals down.

That’s not quite a new phenomenon — 20th famously refused an order for the Richard Lewis sitcom “Anything But Love” from ABC in 1992 when it decided the economics didn’t make sense.

But nonetheless, as the nets and studios struggle to contain costs and target more of their spending, economics will play a larger role in whether projects move forward.

In the case of “Chaos,” pickup was a bumpy one to begin with.

CBS initially gave the show an eight-episode order. Twentieth balked at the offer, as there’s not much upside (and no chance of international sales picking up a show) with such a small order.

CBS then offered a 13-episode pickup (including pilot) at a reduced license fee. That was a difficult go for 20th, however, as the studio has already reduced costs on the project, including shooting it in Dallas, where the studio already built the tax incentives into the show’s budget.

The humor-laced “Chaos” would rep a departure for procedural-heavy CBS, which is perhaps why the Eye has been overly cautious with the pickup.

Yet the unique nature of “Chaos” was also seen as a draw for CBS, which continues to look at ways to break out of the procedural mold.

In addition to Ratner, Tom Spezialy and Martha Haight are exec producers on “Chaos.”

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