The call from Lifetime came in to ABC Studios even before the “Devious Maids” pilot was shot.
Programming execs at the cabler made a point of letting their counterparts at ABC Studios know earlier this year of their interest in Marc Cherry’s “Upstairs, Downstairs”-esque adaptation of a Mexican telenovela that the “Desperate Housewives” creator was developing for ABC.
“They basically told us that if ‘Devious’ doesn’t work out at ABC, call us,” said Barry Jossen, exec veep of ABC Studios.
The cabler’s preemptive move proved prescient. Although “Devious” had strong buzz throughout pilot season, ABC wound up passing on the pilot. That cleared the way for Lifetime to give the show a 12-episode pickup, which the cabler confirmed on Friday after weeks of talks (Daily Variety, May 31).
“From the minute (‘Devious’) was conceived, it seemed so exciting and so right for us in so many ways,” said Rob Sharenow, exec veep of programming for Lifetime Networks. “We kept in close contact with ABC about it.”
That Lifetime was emboldened to signal its interest so early is a reflection of the growing portability of programming assets these days. It’s still rare for a pilot or series to move from a broadcast network to cable, but such shifts are happening more frequently. ABC Studios last month cut a deal with TBS to pick up two seasons of the Courteney Cox comedy “Cougar Town,” which was about to be cancelled after its third season on ABC.
With cable’s increasing appetite for high-end original programming, studios have every incentive to make the most of their development dollars by finding new homes for pilots that don’t go the distance at the originating network. Two years ago, 20th Century Fox TV surprised naysayers when its action-drama pilot “Breakout Kings” rebounded with a series order at A&E after Fox passed.
There’s even greater imperative for studios to relocate established series, like “Cougar Town.” A cancellation of a broadcast network series after three seasons is the cruelest blow for any studio. It prevents the show from hitting the optimum 80-100 episode mark for maximum syndication value after the studio has absorbed deficits on 60-some episodes.
With “Devious Maids” and “Cougar Town,” ABC network execs made decisions based strictly on the needs of the network. But from the studio perspective, there’s more opportunity than ever before to look for alternative prospects. That’s a welcome development for the studio’s bottom line, as well as for the creative community.
Jossen credits ABC Entertainment prexy Paul Lee, who oversees the Alphabet network and ABC Studios, for giving the studio the freedom to pursue its own interests. ABC Studios, like NBCUniversal’s Universal TV, has moved away from the strict focus on vertical integration with its sibling net and aims to play the field with a range of broadcast and cable nets. ABC Studios already produces one of Lifetime’s signature dramas, “Army Wives.”
“We’re happy to be in a place where we can fulfill the needs that ABC has but still have great creative (material) that we can put out there to support other networks,” Jossen said. “It’s an opportunity not only for (ABC Studios) to grow, but it’s a way to make us as alluring as possible for talent to come work with us.”
For Lifetime, the appeal of “Devious Maids” is a no-brainer. The soap, a redo of telenovela “Ellas son la Alegria del Hogar,” follows the lives of five Latinas who work as maids for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills.
Lifetime execs see the sexy soap as a good fit with the Jennifer Love Hewitt starrer “The Client List,” which scored this year in its first season for the cabler. They also see it as a chance to bring in more Hispanic viewers with a series that stars Ana Ortiz, Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez, Roselyn Sanchez, Tom Irwin and Susan Lucci.
“We would love to welcome more Hispanic viewers to our network,” Sharenow said. ” ‘Devious’ has a very specific Hispanic sensibility that you don’t see very often on TV….It speaks to the uniqueness of the storytelling style. We’ve all asked ourselves what would an American ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ look like today. This answers that question in a very modern, exciting way.”
Cherry’s long friendship with Lifetime senior veep of series Nina Lederman also played a part in convincing him to set up shop on cable.
Of course, the details of transitioning the show from an ABC primetime budget to a tighter Lifetime budget was not an easy task, even with the eager cooperation of Cherry and the actors.
“These deals are made and lost in the details,” Jossen said, crediting the tenacious work done by ABC Studios’ biz affairs topper Howard Davine to re-align the key contracts.
The biggest shift is will be the move of lensing to Atlanta rather than Los Angeles, to take advantage of tax incentives as well as the lower overall costs of production in the city compared to L.A. And the cast and crew members had to accept the first season being limited to 12 episodes (beyond the already-produced pilot) rather than a possible 22 (or more) on ABC.
For the studio, the drive to make “Devious” work on Lifetime was also fueled by the desire to come through for Cherry, who helped pull ABC and its studio wing out a rut a decade ago when “Desperate Housewives” hit big. Cherry also suffered the disappointment last year of having another drama pilot, “Hallelujah,” fail to get a series pickup from ABC.
“Marc really wants to make his show,” Jossen said. “Once we gave him the assurance that he’d be able to produce at the level he’s accustomed to, he got really excited about (moving to) Lifetime. When everyone’s committed to making something work, good things happen.”