Upfront Analysis: Fewer Laughs, More Conspiracies, Tougher Choices for Studios

Ever-expanding playing field makes top producers selective in flooded market

In a world of seemingly endless outlets for original programming, leaders of TV’s largest studios emerged from the grind of upfront week increasingly focused on quality over quantity.

There are more places to sell shows, for sure, but that also means more product fighting for syndication, international and SVOD dollars that drive studio profits. Studio execs say they take care to bet on the right horses, not a bunch of horses. And with so many network/digital contenders out there, the focus on broadcast sales as the ultimate measure of studio success is easing, even at the top shops.

Warner Bros. TV and its Warner Horizon wing at present are fielding 14 scripted series across basic and pay cable, including HBO’s summer newbie “The Leftovers.” Twentieth Century Fox TV’s Fox TV Studios and Fox 21 units have 19 scripted series spread among basic and pay cable and Netflix (“The Killing”). Sony Pictures TV has been in the cable biz longer than most, and added to its roster this week with TBS’ order of comedy “Your Family or Mine.”

“This is the first year when we walked into the upfront not feeling like our fates and fortunes were dependent on what the networks were going to give us in terms of series orders,” said Zack Van Amburg, president of programming for Sony Pictures TV along with Jamie Erlicht. “The network business is one part of our portfolio.”

At a time when SVOD sales are becoming integral to series profitability, the pendulum is swinging far back in the direction of networks looking to own or co-own most of their shows to exert maximum control. CBS TV Studios, ABC Studios and Universal TV are reaching record volume, even as they also play the field in selling to outlets outside the family.

As it has for the past six upfronts, Warner Bros. TV leads the biz in new and returning series volume. Broadcast tallies and cable pickups from the past few weeks for the major studios were as follows:

  • Warner Bros. TV: 12 new series (9 dramas, 3 comedies), plus comedy “Buzzy’s” at TBS.
  • Universal TV: 11 new series (6 dramas, 5 comedies), including “Mulaney” at Fox.
  • ABC Studios: 10 new series (7 dramas, 3 comedies), including “Red Band Society” at Fox.
  • CBS TV Studios: 10 new series (8 dramas, 2 comedies), including “Members Only” at ABC.
  • 20th Century Fox TV: 8 new series (5 comedies, 3 dramas), plus dramas “Rush” and “Complications” at USA and comedy “The Comedians” at FX.
  • Sony Pictures TV: 3 new series (2 comedies, 1 drama), plus “Your Family or Mine” at TBS.

CBS TV Studios reached a milestone in setting up a straight-to-series order for sudser “Members Only” at ABC. And it still has hopes that Fox will greenlight comedy “Sober Companion.”

“We now sell everywhere and the community recognizes that. Now we have to achieve success from those sales,” Stapf said.

Like his peers, Stapf emphasized that selling new shows only half the battle during the final lap of upfront season.

“A huge part of selling season is getting existing shows renewed. We were thrilled that almost all of our shows were not only picked up, but ordered early,” he said.

Expanding the “NCIS” and “CSI” franchises was also a priority this year for the studio, Stapf said. And it wants to be more active with comedies, which was a hard assignment this year with CBS pulling back on its half-hour orders. It sets the bar higher for creatives. “If a show is good enough, it’s gonna get ordered,” Stapf said. “We just have to make sure it’s good enough.”

Patrick Moran, exec VP of ABC Studios, echoed that sentiment.

“We made some very strong (comedy) pilots at other networks that we were surprised did not go forward. It just felt like there were fewer shots being taken this year,” he said. “Our hope is that in time that means there’s more real estate to mine for comedies.”

Moran said he was happy that the studio’s three half-hours at ABC — “Blackish,” “Manhattan Love Story” and “Galavant” — were distinctive shots at a family comedy, a rom-com and a highly original musical fairy tale, respectively. “Galavant” in particular is a big swing, but that’s what it takes at a when it’s hard to get attention for more traditional comedies, as the Alphabet saw this season with “Trophy Wife.”

The notion of the “selling season” that used to end with the close of upfront week is an anachronism today. A high number of projects, notably comedies, will be taken back out onto the market as early as next week. Those include 20th TV’s “How I Met Your Dad,” Sony TV’s Jim Gaffigan vehicle as well as that studio’s resident enfant terrible, “Community,” now that the ax has fallen at NBC.

There are sure to be off-cycle opportunists who will move quickly in the coming weeks, which used to be “Gone Fishing” time at the major nets, to take advantage of the year-round demand for originals that was talked up at each and every broadcast upfront this past week.

For 20th TV, this was a year of transition as sibling network Fox implemented a massive re-engineering of its development process, opting for new models of evaluating prospects. The studio’s priority was to help forge a path with creatives and talent reps to show the rest of the biz how Fox’s vision of straight-to-series orders, series prototype packages and multiple script orders prior to pilot greenlight will help the end goal of generating stronger material.

“We needed to be proactive in providing programming to our sister company, and get series in development and production in different ways than in the past,” said Dana Walden, who is CEO of 20th TV along with Gary Newman. She cited long-gestating straight-to-series orders such as the Will Forte comedy “Last Man on Earth” and drama “Hieroglyph” as examples.

But for all these changes, upfront season remains a galvanizing point on the TV industry’s calendar, establishing deadlines for completing work, making the pickup or pass calls and evaluating what stays and what goes. After a long competitive slog this spring, key trends emerged:

  • Comedy is hard: Last year’s boom in sitcom orders was not sustained given this season’s high failure rate. As such, Sony Pictures TV was gratified to get “The Goldbergs” renewed and relocated to the plum post-“Modern Family” time slot in the fall.
  • Turn up the intensity: Serialized mystery-conspiracy plots are busting out all over as network shows try to grab some of the can’t-miss-an-episode sizzle of cable shows. “It’s the ‘Homeland’ effect,” says ABC Studios’ Moran. “The intense serialized drama was very much in fashion this year. You’re seeing such strong dramas in cable that the networks are trying to raise their game.”
  • Primetime that looks like America: The high level of diversity on both sides of the camera was notable this year, from the POV of projects (“Blackish,” “Cristela,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Empire”) to casting choices (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Red Band Society”) to auspices (John Ridley, Nahnatchka Khan, Cristela Alonzo, Lee Daniels). “There was genuine, organic diversity to the slate this year,” 20th TV’s Walden said. “We are seeing shows about lives that were not previously the focus of network TV shows.”
  • Shorter orders: More dramas are designed from the start to unfold over a shorter episode arc (“A.D.,” “Aquarius,” “Gracepoint,” “Wayward Pines,” etc.). And more comedies are getting shorter orders (6-8 episodes) in an effort to allow more volume overall. This can be challenging for producers.
  • Formats from countries other than Israel: Spain was a hot spot this year with the exports of Fox’s “Red Band Society” and NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura.” ABC’s “Secrets and Lies” hails from Down Under and CW’s “Jane the Virgin” was originally conceived in Venezuela. “Gracepoint” is British by birth. Israel accounted for NBC’s “Allegiance.”

Among this year’s creative All-Stars:

  • Amblin TV: Steven Spielberg’s banner had a good year, with Fox ordering “Red Band Society,” drama “The Whispers” at ABC and “Public Morals” at TNT.
  • DC Comics: Warner Bros. TV is mining its sibling unit’s deep vault, sending “Gotham” to Fox, “Constantine” to NBC and “The Flash” to CW.
  • Gary Sanchez Prods.: The Universal TV-based banner headed by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell bucked the downtrend and landed two new comedies on NBC: “Bad Judge” and “Mission Control.”
  • Timberman/Beverly Prods.: The hard-working Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly added CBS’ “The Odd Couple” and ABC’s “Members Only” to a roster that already includes Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” FX’s “Justified” and CBS’ “Elementary” and “Unforgettable.”
  • Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment: Nobody works harder to get and keep shows on the air, colleagues say. This year he shepherded “Mysteries of Laura” and “Secrets and Lies.”
  • Jake Kasdan: The helmer is on a roll as a director-producer, landing ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” (which he did not direct) and Fox’s “Weird Loners” (which he did).

SEE ALSO: Photos of Upfront Presentations and Parties

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  1. Remisha Juarez Salic Cho Jones says:

    2014 and network television recognizes the importance and profitability of diversity, and attempts to offer programming which reflects the wide variations in audience cultures and interests. Amazing! There is hope for Hollywood and the genre of television, and such actions are long overdue.

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