WBTV turns it up with sked

Primetime volume spikes as rivals cut back

Big hugs all around: Defying an industry trend toward reduced production, Warner Bros. TV and prexy Peter Roth will head into the 2003-04 season with a jaw-dropping 28 primetime comedies and dramas — including 15 new series spread among five of the Big Six webs.

Volume doesn’t automatically spell success or profitability, particularly at a time when a chilly international market and the consolidation of TV station groups has made it more difficult than ever to erase production deficits through backend revenue. Indeed, most studios — including onetime output leader 20th Century Fox TV — have purposely scaled back production in recent years, hoping to increase profits by reducing deficits.

Even Roth — a passionate exec known for figuratively and literally embracing and nurturing talent — has acknowledged that a tally of how many shows a studio has on the air isn’t the best measure of success anymore.

That said, WBTV’s production spike merits attention because of just how dramatically the studio has stepped up its output. In just two years, the AOL Time Warner-owned unit has doubled the number of shows it produces, from 14 to 28.

Studio scored by dramatically increasing its development for sister web the WB and by inking a number of high-profile nonwriting exec producers to its roster, such as Jerry Bruckheimer, Eric and Kim Tannenbaum and Tony Krantz.

Those pod deals, along with the exiting Tollin-Robbins Prods., account for more than half of WBTV’s 15 new skeins.

Bruckheimer and his production topper, Jonathan Littman, were particularly prolific, making three drama pilots and landing all three on the air. Ditto the Tannenbaums, who will produce three comedies next fall — including Charlie Sheen starrer “Two and a Half Men,” which landed the plum 9:30 p.m. Monday slot following “Everybody Loves Raymond” on CBS.

WBTV’s strategies carries risks, including the possibility of incurring tens of millions of dollars in deficits that will never be recouped if the bulk of the new series don’t make it past their first season.

Strength in numbers

But there’s also the potential for huge rewards.

By so thoroughly dominating the primetime landscape, the studio believes it theoretically stands a better shot at landing the next “Friends” or “ER” — two WBTV shows that, combined, have brought in more than $1 billion in syndie revenue. WBTV execs also believe their studio boasts a superior syndie pipeline and better international output deals than the competish, making investment less painful.

“We continue to believe the network TV series business is a very good business,” Roth said. “The key for us is creating a pipeline of hit shows. If the product is good enough, there’s money to be made.”

Indeed, Roth continues to emphasize what he told Daily Variety a year ago: “In the end, it’s not where you are in May but how many shows you have on in December.”

By that count, Roth also claims bragging rights since six of 10 shows picked up to series during the 2002-03 season will be back for sophomore years.

“The fact that 60% of our shows from this season will be returning is the real testament to our success,” Roth said. “And I think four of those six shows have the makings of very profitable shows.”

Touchstone Television and 20th Century Fox TV will have three sophomore shows next fall; both launched seven shows during the season. U had four and will return two.

Counting up shows, whether new or returning, isn’t always the best way to measure a studio’s success.

Execs at 20th Century Fox TV, for example, are happy that they managed to return all of their bubble shows for next season, including two skeins already sold into syndication (“The Practice,” “Angel”).

But toppers Gary Newman and Dana Walden believe 20th also had a great year because the studio stuck to its recent philosophy of focused development.

“We are developing projects that evoke passion from our executives,” Walden said. “We’ve left New York before having 24 series. We know that (larger volume) only maxes out the resources of your company. You can only spread the talents of your execs so thin.”

Added Newman, tongue firmly in cheek: “If we had 28 shows to return to Los Angeles with, we’d be hoping for the plane to go down on the way home.”

Like WBTV, 20th’s roster of pods had solid development cycles.

Marty Adelstein and Neal Moritz’s 20th-based Original drew orders for three new series (including one for midseason) in its maiden development season, while Brad Grey TV also snagged a trio of commitments in its first year based at the studio. Imagine — in its first development year under David Nevins — snagged a pair of series orders.

Walden and Newman also achieved another goal: They made their boss happy.

“I would hold up the success of 20th this pilot season as the model for all studios that want to remain financially and creatively relevant over the long term,” said Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. “Because in an increasingly difficult economic landscape, Dana and Gary… understood that maximizing profitability in an era of diminishing international and syndication returns means eschewing volume just for the sake of volume.”

NBC Studios, CBS Prods. and ABC-managed Touchstone Television all continued to churn out a healthy number of shows for their respective networks, even though the nets seemed more open to outside suppliers than in recent years.

Being part of the same corporate family didn’t guarantee preferential treatment this year. Indeed, ABC gave some of its best timeslots to outside production units while giving Touchstone shows tougher assignments.

Touchstone topper Steve McPherson said his studio’s skeins can handle the pressure.

“Our mission is to develop good shows and we think we did that,” he said. “We have challenging timeslots, but we’ve had that before with ‘8 Simple Rules’ and ‘According to Jim.’ We feel like we’re up to the challenge.”

With most studios following the 20th model of more targeted production, it’s no surprise that other production toppers don’t seem concerned by WBTV’s dominance of primetime.

“Warner Bros. stole the printing press from News Corp. and now they’re printing the money,” said Paramount TV production prexy Garry Hart.

Risk rises, too

Hart noted that the upside in the big volume business is tremendous, but if it doesn’t work, “It’s crushing.” On the flip side, those not in the big volume business are less likely to hit the jackpot, but the downside isn’t as harsh.

“Take a look at the number of TV series that have failed vs. how many have made a big profit,” Hart said. “What we’re trying to do is a little more conservative.”

Scoring three new shows on next year’s skeds (including ABC’s midseason “Kingdom Hospital” and WB’s midseason “The Mayor”), Sony Pictures TV production prexy Russ Krasnoff says the studio is pleased with its small-is-better approach.

“We don’t own a broadcast network, we don’t own a general entertainment network, the only thing we do is make and distribute TV shows,” Krasnoff said. “We, however, have to do it on a profitable model.”

Universal TV topper David Kissinger landed one new show on the fall skeds, but it’s one with a great timeslot: the ABC drama “Karen Sisco,” which will air Wednesdays at 10 after “The Bachelor.”

He’s also not giving up on pilots such as the Eye’s “Century City” and “Lunchbox Chronicles” or Fox’s “About a Boy.”

U, which reaps millions from the profit machine that is Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” franchise, made just five pilots this year. Kissinger, too, is convinced size isn’t everything.

“We’re in a different position (than WBTV),” he said. “We don’t have a broadcast network in our corporate family that we have to feed.”

Still, “I just don’t understand the volume game,” Kissinger said. “Particularly given the realities of the business, it doesn’t make sense to me. It leads to a lack of focus and it means, by necessity, you’re going to have a lot of failure.”

For WBTV and Roth, the prospect of failure doesn’t weigh heavily.

While WBTV still has several major money machines on its list — “ER” and “The West Wing” recently wrapped new deals extending their lives until 2006 and 2005, respectively — the studio is about to say goodbye to hits such as “Friends” and “The Drew Carey Show.”

Old-fashioned logic

Yet many industry observers think there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned logic of spending money to make money in the quest for new hits.

What’s more, with its wide array of pod deals, WBTV has a small army of producers who could be running their own studios — and in most cases already have. That fact, paired with what Roth calls “the finest team of execs I’ve ever worked with,” gives Roth’s strategy a shot of working and will allow him to manage such a large slate of skeins, some observers believe.

“There seems to be a strategy where others are pulling back, but we see opportunities for growth,” Roth said. “We’re blessed with the advantage of being able to reinvest our profits. We have great network partners. And we work our asses off to fulfill their expectations.

“What it comes down to is, we genuinely love television and we believe in the business of network TV.”

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