TV studios embrace full service

Writers welcome loosening of silo mentality

After years of Balkanization among Hollywood’s network-studio behemoths, the doors on the production side have suddenly swung wide open. Studios that count Big Three nets among their corporate siblings are increasingly venturing into the outside world with their wares.

The movement is welcome news to the creative community, even as it promises to raise the competitive stakes. Functioning as a “full-service studio” is a mantra among the larger shops these days.

Bob Greenblatt made it clear from the start of his tenure as NBC Entertainment chairman that he would expand the scope of the Peacock’s network production well beyond NBC.

He made good on that promise by recruiting the highly regarded Bela Bajaria from CBS to run the unit. She set up two hot comedy prospects at ABC and a drama at the Eye before she hit her one-month anniversary on the job. (Thankfully, Greenblatt also retired the studio’s sterile-sounding Universal Media Studios moniker and returned to classic form with Universal Television.)

ABC Studios earlier this month set up a comedy and a drama at NBC, among other outside projects. CBS TV Studios now counts NBCUniversal as a customer after landing a series order from USA Network for buddy dramedy “Common Law,” from producer Jon Turteltaub.

Perhaps the most unexpected burst of sales in the past few months has come from Universal Cable Prods., the NBCU cable studio formed in 2008 after Bonnie Hammer carved her own production infrastructure. UCP has not only nabbed series orders from non-NBCU outlets (Lifetime’s “Against the Wall,” MTV’s upcoming “I Just Want My Pants Back”) but has a half-dozen comedy and drama scripts spread among Fox, ABC and CBS, plus projects for NBC proper.

What gives? Why the change in the vertically integrated mindset that set in after last rites were read for the fin-syn rule (if you were born after 1985, look it up) in the mid-1990s?

Beth Roberts, chief operating officer of UCP and exec veep of biz affairs for NBCU Cable Entertainment, thinks the push to build a more diverse portfolio of buyers is a natural evolution for network-affiliated studios. It took time for execs who were focused on running networks to understand the “different rhythms” of the studio business, she says.

“The life cycle of a show’s revenue streams are very different for a network and a studio,” says Roberts, who was a top biz-affairs exec at the Peacock before shifting to the cable side. “The studios take the long-tail perspective. Your goal is to build a library of assets that are going to continue to pay out year after year.”

Where networks treat shows on a balance sheet as an immediate cost, studios treat them as an investment. The goal is to build a robust pipeline of shows that sell around the world and play on forever in reruns. Call it the “I Love Lucy” standard.

“You need to feed that pipeline with whatever content you can, which means you need to go to as many buyers as you can,” says Roberts.

Other industry execs say that the need to make the most of a studio’s roster of creative talent deals provides incentive to shop around.

There are only so many slots that an affiliated network has to fill in a given season, and it pays for studios to keep their talent working.

For years, doing an overall deal (for those lucky enough to command one) with NBC, ABC Studios or CBS TV Studios has come with the understanding that their development would be laser-focused on one network. (Twentieth Century Fox TV, of course, has been on the full-service course for many moons.)

The silo mentality isn’t going to disappear overnight, but the Glasnost effect demonstrated over the past year or so is an intriguing shift. There’s also a certain validation for a young effort like UCP, which is run by an exec quartet comprised of Roberts, USA Network prexy Jeff Wachtel, Syfy original content prexy Mark Stern and Jerry DiCanio, production topper for UCP and Universal TV.

“When your mom tells you you’re great, it makes you feel good,” Roberts says. “When an outsider tells you you’re great, then you know it’s true.”

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