All in the family

Sibling studios feather their net's nests

This article was corrected on May 19, 2002.

NEW YORK — Size isn’t everything.

While 20th Century Fox Television and Warner Bros. TV remain the largest suppliers of primetime programming to the Big Six networks, the annual showdown between the two behemoths to see which can land more shows on the fall skeds has become more irrelevant than ever.

Indeed, with networks increasingly relying on their sibling studios for programming, the annual tally of who-got-what on the air now serves to underline the fact that the bulk of primetime fare is being produced by a handful of studios affiliated with broadcast nets. The more hours of programming your sister web needs, the more shows you’ll likely end up producing.

And just because you land a slew of skeins on the air doesn’t mean you’re going to make money. Artists Television Group wowed the industry two years ago by landing five shows in primetime; a little more than a year later, it was out of business after none of its shows was renewed.

What’s more, midseason orders can often be more valuable than fall pickups, given the crush of new programs in the fall makes it hard to break out and become a hit.

Studio toppers are the first to admit the folly of tallying up who has how many shows.

“It’s no longer about volume, even though there’s still the tendency this time of the year for all of us to add up who has what,” said 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden, whose studio has been the largest supplier of network skeins for several years now.

20th still on top

While 20th remains on top following this week’s sked announcements — with 19 skeins ordered, down from 24 — Walden isn’t expecting that to last forever. Indeed, some thought the studio would slip behind WBTV this year– particularly since 20th made a concerted effort to produce a more targeted development slate, cutting the number of pilots it produced by 30% vs. a year ago.

“Vertical integration is a major reality in our business,” she said. “One of these studios with a 22-hour-a-week network as a partner is eventually going to eclipse us.”

And as her boss, Fox Entertainment Television Group chairman Sandy Grushow puts it, “Focusing on the studio tally is really a dinosaurs’ view of the business.”

Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth is equally dismissive of end-of-year tallies, even though this year WBTV has plenty to brag about on that count. It’ll produce or co-produce 18 skeins next fall, up from 14 last year.

“If you ask any of our CEOs or chairmen what’s most important, it’s not how many shows we put on the air,” Roth said. “It’s what’s most profitable. That’s why we feel as good as we do about this year: We believe in the quality of our product. In the end, it’s not where you are in May but how many shows you have on in December.”

Corporate mandates certainly helped both 20th and WBTV get shows on the air. Ditto CBS Prods. and NBC Studios, which will have a stake in most of their respective networks’ new shows.

Touchstone prospers

Touchstone Television also was helped by its ties to ABC — though that’s not the only reason behind its success.

The Disney-owned studio, led by Steve McPherson, was all but guaranteed of having a good year: Almost all of ABC’s 29 pilots where produced under the auspices of Touchstone. As a result, Touchstone has more new shows than any other supplier (nine).

But Touchstone also landed key renewals for non-ABC skeins such as “Scrubs” and “The Amazing Race,” both of which are shaping up to be key profit centers for the company. What’s more, if Touchstone’s pilots had turned out awful, ABC could have simply stuck with some existing ratings laggards or snatched up other nets’ unsold pilots.

NBC Studios topper Ted Harbert argues that while vertical integration gives a studio a leg up, it’s not the determining factor for success.

“Jeff Zucker isn’t putting anything onto NBC from NBC Studios if he has other stuff that’s better,” Harbert said.

As for Touchstone, McPherson said this year was an anomaly because of ABC’s desperate need for new programming. “The collaboration became much more important because of their needs,” he said. “Next year, we’ll be back to the same ration of 60% (ABC development) and 40% (outside nets) we’ve had in the past.”

Touchstone’s long-term success will also be boosted by the fact that the studio has such a small infrastructure of execs, making it easier to produce long-term profits for the Mouse House. Studio has also benefited by a number of strategic deals with smaller production banners, like former NBC exec Flody Suarez’s FlodyCo. (“8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”)

While the nets now rely more heavily than ever on their corporate studio sibs, there’s still room for independents.

The newly minted Universal Television, which combines the old assets of Studios USA Television with the old U’s “Just Shoot Me,” had solid success this year — despite being unaligned with any network.

Goal: get wide, not big

And while U is looking to grow even more, the goal is to not get big — but to get wider. It’s looking to shake its rep as the House that Dick Wolf built.

“We made an effort this year to somewhat diversify our programming,” said programming prexy Sarah Timberman. “Dick Wolf is a tremendous foundation for us, and we’re enormously excited about (ABC midseason drama) ‘Dragnet.’ But we also are pleased to have a show like ‘American Dreams,’ which is atypical for the kind of shows that Studios USA has been known for in recent years.”

Even the big guys recognize the need for indie players, whether they’re completely independent (like U) or housed within a bigger studio.

“Television has always benefited from having smaller, passionate production entities driving the development of programs they feel strongly about,” said 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman. “Having these nonwriting producer and pod deals is a way to create a small company environment inside a big company. It’s a way of expanding opportunities to create new assets.”

Small shingles prosper

Indeed, this was a banner year for smaller production shingles such as Tollin/Robbins Prods., Bruckheimer Films and Gavin Polone’s Pariah. Each has a different financial setup, but all have emerged as serious players on the production scene.

Mike Tollin of Tollin/Robbins, which has a partnership with Warner Bros., said he and his partner Brian Robbins are pleased by the pickups of new skeins “Birds of Prey” and “What I Like About You” and the renewal of “Smallville.” But the company has no plans to use its current success to try to turn into a volume player.

“This isn’t about empire building,” he said. “(T/R prexy) Joe Davola likes to say, ‘We make every doughnut ourselves,’ and I think that’s a good philosophy. We’ve grown very slowly and very carefully.”

Bruckheimer Films television topper Jonathan Littman — whose Warner Bros.-based shingle will have four skeins on the air this fall, all on CBS — is equally cautious about using this year’s success to expand too rapidly.

“We’d like to keep it a small but burgeoning company,” he said. “We want to have as many shows as we can, but we want to do them well.”

Polone’s still-fresh Pariah had a great second season of development, snagging orders for “Family Affair” on the WB and “Hack” on CBS. (Both are co-productions with other studios.) He’s a bit more ambitious about beefing up his studio’s roster, quickly answering “yes” when asked if he wants to build an empire.

The key is control

What’s most important for Polone is maintaining control, both financially and creatively.

“It’s all about doing a lot of good work and making money for people,” he said.

Pariah is currently without a studio home, but Polone has been approached about making a deal. He’s open to the idea, as long as he maintains control of his programming.

Trying to figure out the right yardstick for success is tough, particularly when the same studio chiefs who dismiss the idea of a
studio scorecard nonetheless hunger to have their banner atop such a list. (As one network prexy puts it, “It’s a boy thing.”)

Profitability of a studio’s entire roster of shows certainly is one reasonable idea for figuring out success. But since one big hit can hide a lot of failure, it’s not a good way to show how studio will look five years from now.

Paramount TV Group topper Garry Hart suggests a star system might be the solution.

Take a studio’s shows that are in profit, and give them a gold star, he suggests. Then take the shows that you believe will be in profit, and give the studio a silver star. Everything else gets no stars.

“The studio that has the most gold and silver stars wins,” he said.