TV’s change of seasons

Studios ponder small screen's year-round reality

It’s the end of the fall season as we know it, and TV’s major studio suppliers feel fine — for the most part.

Nobody’s popping the Cristal, but the endless talk of year-round programming at this week’s upfront presentations means someone’s going to have to start churning out all of this fresh fare — and in most cases, the “someone” is the net’s studio sibling.

Warner Bros. TV, for example, is producing all of the Frog’s new scripted skeins, while 20th Century Fox TV mobilized early last fall to make sure Fox Broadcasting would be able to launch a full summer slate of shows.

That doesn’t mean studios expect — or even want — a flood of new series orders.

Celebrating his second year as primetime’s top series supplier — and, perhaps more importantly, a whopping 15 returning shows — WBTV prexy Peter Roth nonetheless plans to reconsider how to approach development next year.

As reality takes an even meatier role in the networks’ schedules, and the nets launch fewer new shows in the fall, Roth said he will likely become pickier with the number of projects Warner Bros. TV develops next year in favor of more direct at-bats. Also look for the studio to be less anxious about signing new pod deals.

Shift comes after several years in which the studio aggressively sought to get shows on the air in a bid to develop replacement skeins for blockbusters such as “Friends” and “ER.”

“It’s a challenging time in the TV business, and we recognize those challenges,” he said. “Our goal: We’re going to pull back and be more targeted and calculated. What it means (is that) now more than ever we’re going to scrutinize every project and financial decision. We have to, in a changing marketplace.”

That includes reducing pilots, rethinking budgets and perhaps aiming for a smaller number of series pickups, Roth said. It’s a strategy 20th Century Fox TV and Sony have been espousing for a few seasons.

“With the advent of reality, we just have to work harder, be better and be more compelling,” he said. “If our shows are well executed the way they need to be, they will find a place on these network schedules.”

David Kissinger, who runs the new NBC Universal TV Studio with co-prexy Angela Bromstad, said that NUTS won’t go nuts in seeking series orders, either.

“Anyone who wants as many shots as possible in this environment is being irresponsible,” he said.

Feeding Fox

And rather than focusing on a year-end tally, 20th toppers Gary Newman and Walden said their main goal this development season was to make sure sister net Fox had scripted summer shows ready to slot.

“Fox has taken the development season out of the fall cycle,” Newman said. “The strategy the network is embracing is risky, and since we’re the primary company helping them to figure out how to get programming to start early, it becomes risky for us. But we like the chances we have of launching our shows outside the clutter of the fall.”

Still, year-round programming also means more reality shows — or, as studios generally see them, shows that steal timeslots away from new comedies and dramas.

Reality’s fantasy

Indeed, it’s never been a better time to be in the reality biz. With advertisers now embracing unscripted skeins like never before, reality shows are becoming major tentpoles for the nets, even in the fall.

Mark Burnett Prods., for example, now has more series commitments over the next 12 months — five reality shows on four nets, plus two series orders from the WB — than John Wells, David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco combined.

Endemol USA has three shows on three nets, while Michael Davies’ Diplomatic shingle has a pair of new shows launching in the fall. Fox-based Rocket Science also continues to churn out new skeins, while FremantleMedia (which produces “American Idol” with 19 Entertainment) has “The Swan 2” on the air at Fox this fall.

No surprise, then, that the major studios are hopping on the reality bandwagon: 20th produces “The Simple Life” with Bunim-Murray. Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures will produce a slew of shows for the WB via reality titan Mike Fleiss (“The Bachelor”), who has multiple projects in the works for midseason. Paramount even has a sketch comedy show from Kelsey Grammer.

Sitcoms squashed

Unfortunately, the big cash cows for most studios — hit sitcoms — have become an endangered species.

There’ll be just 36 laffers on the Big Six skeds next fall, down almost 33% from a year ago. Only five comedies are returning for sophomore seasons.

Networks figure they can launch their fall skeds better with reality shows and that unscripted skeins can provide the blockbuster numbers shows like “Friends” once did.

But what’s good for primetime ratings is awful news for studios, who need syndie-worthy comedy hits to pay for other failures.

“ABC and NBC sort of gave up on comedy this year, and that’s a mistake in the long run,” said one studio exec. “There’s an audience that enjoys comedy, and they’re going to be looking for new things to watch with ‘Friends’ and other shows going away.”

Studio execs remain optimistic, repeating the oft-heard refrain that it takes just one big hit to jump start a genre.

“Renaissance comes out of necessity — and the necessity is there now,” said newly minted Touchstone TV prexy Mark Pedowitz.

Other notable highlights for the studios post-upfront:

  • NUTS had a rather strong coming-out party, landing 21 series on air between fall and midseason. The merger between two congloms has added heft to what used to be two smaller operations.

“I think we’ve got to keep our focus on keeping our shows on the air,” Bromstad said. “The more stability we have, the more freedom we’ll have (to take a chance on new projects).”

The strong showing by NUTS was especially gratifying for Kissinger, whose Universal TV shingle had one of its best development seasons in years, despite the uncertainly of a merger looming overhead. Skeins included everything from franchise medical dramas (“House”) to groundbreaking experimental comedy (“The Office,” from NUTS-based Reveille).

“I just played the hand that was dealt me,” he said. “I can’t say I approached this year any different from other years, but perhaps my competitive juices were very much flowing because of all the obstacles Universal had to overcome with people speculating.”

  • While their focus was on helping Fox Broadcasting go year-round, Walden and Newman admit they’re disappointed 20th didn’t get any new shows picked up for fall at nets other than Fox.

“That’s going to be an area of focus for us next year,” Walden said, noting she’s still hopeful ABC will greenlight the buzzed-about John Stamos laffer the studio produced.

Getting a pickup for “Arrested Development” — the critically hailed laffer from 20th-based Imagine– was a big plus for the studio, and some last-minute financial concessions snagged a midseason order for “Yes, Dear.”

Execs at 20th aren’t backing off their strategy of targeted shots, and they remain committed to lowering production costs (as evidenced by the recent launch of boutique shingle Fox 21).

What’s more, “I wouldn’t trade our slate of current series for any other,” Newman said.

  • Touchstone’s Pedowitz is psyched about getting new drama “Kevin Hill” on the air at UPN. “I hope this dispels the rumors that we’re just an inhouse operation,” he said of the skein, developed by new ABC primetime chief Steve McPherson.

Pedowitz also said his studio will continue to pursue low-cost programming for primetime. “We’ve actually always been active” on that front, he said.

  • Roth said he’s more proud of his returning shows tally than his new orders. “It’s not how many you sell in May, it’s what’s still on in December,” he said. “Let those 15 series serve as proof of the importance and success of our studio.”

Those vets have legs, too: Four of WBTV’s soon-to-be-sophomores — “The OC,” “Two and a Half Men,” “One Tree Hill” and “Eve” — rank as their respective nets’ top-rated shows in adults 18-49.

  • Paramount execs mourned the loss of money machine “Frasier” but breathed a big sigh of relief when UPN picked up “Star Trek: Enterprise” for a key fourth season. Studio also remains in business with all six networks and has one of next season’s most high profile dramas: Steven Bochco Prods.’ “Blind Justice.”

  • Over at Regency TV, lots of patience paid off with “Listen Up,” the Jason Alexander-led laffer that snagged a spot on the Eye’s top-rated Monday lineup. Project, a co-production with CBS Prods. that also reps the return of former NBC longform topper Lindy DeKoven to primetime, had been in the works for more than a year.

  • Sony didn’t get any new series orders for fall, but the studio did have one of this season’s few genuine hits with the well-regarded “Joan of Arcadia.”

  • Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, which may be up for sale, survived another year as an indie. No newcomers, but “That ’70s Show” remains strong and getting “Grounded for Life” renewed by the WB was a huge plus (hello, syndication!).

  • Unlike years past, when networks and studios from rival congloms got in nasty negotiation spats, this upfront’s battles were kept to a minimum. Kissinger says that’s because we’re now living in an era he likes to call “mutually assured vertical integration.”

“I don’t think these companies want to be beating each other over the head any more; they know it can be done both ways,” he said.