Mouse's focus on content, ABC drama successes spur expansion bid

Sexy political scandals, vengeful women and fairy-tale feuds have been good for ABC this season — and the success of sophomore dramas “Scandal,” “Revenge” and “Once Upon a Time” is fueling a growth spurt at ABC Studios, which is gaining in stature as a profit center for the Mouse.

Insiders say the heightened activity at ABC Studios comes as Disney brass are pushing all key business units to focus on long-term sustainability in a fast-changing marketplace. ABC’s traditional business of broadcasting may be facing plenty of challenges, but the best of the programs produced by ABC Studios are likely to have enduring value on a multitude of screens.The growing demand from digital distribs a la Netflix has helped ease industrywide concerns about the health of the after-market for network series, particularly the serialized dramas that are ABC’s bread and butter. All of these headwinds are pushing the drive to expand ABC Studios’ talent roster and diversify its program slate under the direction of ABC Entertainment Group prexy Paul Lee.

ABC Studios’ rising profile was underscored last week when it unveiled a big-bucks overall deal with Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, a pair who had been affiliated with Warner Bros. for more than a decade. The duo’s primary focus will be on developing projects for ABC and ABC Family, but they will have the flexibility to go outside as well.

“Clearly to own and make your own television is absolutely critical to the future,” Lee told Variety. “I made it my mission the day I walked through the door (in 2010) to drive a resurgence in the studio. We said, ‘Let’s attract the best talent in town who are telling best stories in town.’ We’ve made a cracking good start.”

Disney sees the TV studio as a wellspring of the kind of transmedia content that the Mouse is looking for in its films — properties that can yield spinoffs in other media, theme park attractions and merchandising bonanzas. A family-friendly success story like “Once Upon a Time,” an intricate blend of stories about fairy-tale characters and their present-day alter egos, is well positioned on that front.

ABC Studios is also poised to be a big component of the Mouse’s campaign to freshen up Marvel characters for a new generation. To wit, ABC’s hottest pilot prospect for the 2013-14 season is the Joss Whedon-led drama “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” inspired by last summer’s B.O. smash “The Avengers.”

Beyond its focus on feeding Disney’s many platforms, ABC Studios has been branching out as a supplier to non-Mouse networks. As it expands its roster of creative talent, the studio needs to be able to play the field of network and cable buyers to keep those writers busy and to cast a wider net in terms of qualitative output.

ABC Studios has periodically fielded shows to non-Disney networks in recent past, including CBS’ “Criminal Minds” (a co-production with CBS TV Studios) and Lifetime’s “Army Wives.”

But there’s a new push to raise the profile of the studio vis a vis its studio-based competitors and change the general industry perception that ABC Studios is strictly an inhouse Disney arm. That means doing business all over town in addition to delivering cornerstone shows to the Alphabet. The studio has development prospects in contention at CBS, Fox, NBC and multiple cablers.

Moreover, ABC Studios saved its ABC comedy “Cougar Town” from cancellation last year by cutting a two-season deal for the show with Turner’s TBS. That spared the Mouse from the cruelest cut of having a show canceled after three seasons — just under the threshold of amassing enough episodes (80-100) to make a meaningful syndication deal to recoup deficits.

The studio also moved quickly at the end of last year’s upfront season to ink a series deal with Lifetime for the Marc Cherry pilot “Devious Maids,” which didn’t make the cut at ABC.

Tenpercenters give ABC Studios execs credit for putting an emphasis on bringing in a mix of established and up-and-coming scribes who are hungry to get shows on the air and for maintaining a lean management structure.

Barry Jossen, exec veep of studio creative and production for ABC Entertainment Group, is a production whiz who oversees day-to-day operations. Patrick Moran, ABC Studios’ senior veep and head of creative development (who reports to Jossen and Lee), is spearheading the talent recruiting drive and steers creative matters with Stephanie Leifer, ABC Studios’ senior veep of current programming.

With a growing slate of cable prospects, the studio’s former drama exec Tracy Underwood was recently tapped to oversee a low-cost series development unit.

Jossen and Moran are gearing up for a busy year. Comedy development for ABC is a top priority, as is tapping into the Marvel vault. And the execs have high hopes for a few non-ABC projects.

“We feel like there’s such an opportunity to grow the studio right now. The (ABC) studio-network relationship is really strong and we have nice traction there,” Moran said. “The best way to grow the studio is to make more options available to our producers. It’s no secret that the big win for us is a hit show on ABC. That’s the obvious goal, but that can’t be our only goal.”

Jossen, a 10-year vet of the studio (formerly known as Touchstone TV), credits Lee with galvanizing their efforts to grow and take risks with offbeat fare such as “Once Upon a Time.”

“We feel there is support for and confidence in what we’re capable of doing,” Jossen said. “Paul came in and said, ‘Let’s figure out what you do well and what you could do better.’ … At a time when television as we know it is changing dramatically, we have to evolve in smart ways to sustain our business.”

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