Sony’s back and ready for action

'Joan,' 'Kingdom' signal resurgence in TV biz

It turns out Howard Stringer had to kill Sony’s network TV division in order to save it.

Two years after the exec flatly announced he was getting out of the web biz, Sony Pictures Television has once again emerged as a legitimate force in primetime production. While not in the same game as powerhouses such as Warner Bros., Touchstone or 20th, the studio has found a way to make primetime fare for both broadcast and cable nets without a slew of costly writer deals or ever-proliferating pod pacts.

Over the last six months, the studio developed about 30 projects targeted for broadcast nets, snagged greenlights for a quartet of cable pilots and co-produced one of the hottest frosh dramas of the fall (“Joan of Arcadia.”)

Few would have predicted such a slate from a studio that in 2001 shocked Hollywood with a declaration that it was getting out of the broadcast game.

“It doesn’t make any sense anymore,” Stringer told Variety at the time. “I don’t want to be part of a system that doesn’t bring returns on Sony’s investment.”

Stringer’s mandate–it was more like a tactical pullback– set in motion an extreme makeover of what was then known as Columbia TriStar Television.

The network division was eliminated, numerous execs were let go, and a slew of costly overall production deals were either bought out or not renewed. Agents and scribes all over town mourned the loss of yet another independent shingle, and moved on.

Even Sony staffers were feeling a bit out of sorts.

“It was a really low period for the company,” current SPT prexy Steve Mosko admits. “Everyone sort of felt like, ‘Now what?’ ”

But lost amid all the hand-wringing was the fact that Stringer, either accidentally or by design, left himself some wiggle room to return to primetime.

“I’m not slamming any doors long-term,” he said in 2001. “We’re not walking away from primetime. If network TV gets together and figures out how we can do something together, I’m back in it.”

The nets haven’t really changed their business models, but in a short time, SPT prexy Mosko and programming/production prexy Russ Krasnoff did:

  • Instead of churning out mass quantities of “product” to fill holes on a sibling network’s schedule, the unaligned Sony has declared itself a sort-of primetime boutique. Execs say their mandate is to produce only shows they strongly believe stand out from standard-issue network fare — as well as programs that have a chance to turn a profit in success, something that’s no longer a given in an age of diminished syndie and international revenues.

“We don’t own a broadcast network, we don’t own TV stations, we don’t own a general interest cable network,” Krasnoff says. “Networks and their inhouse studios can provide all the standard issue fare they need for themselves. We have to focus on creative, different ideas because that’s what breaks out, that’s what we need for a network to put (a Sony show) on the air.”

  • The new Sony isn’t about pinching pennies. On more than one occasion last fall, rival studios were caught off guard when they found themselves outbid by Sony for the rights to a hot idea or scribe.

Though some rivals questioned some of the dollars Sony put behind certain deals, Sony insiders say spending $100,000 or so more to land a particularly hot project is far more cost effective than the $2 million or $3 million a year the studio used to spend for overall deals with a single scribe.

  • The studio is trying to come up with more cost-effective ways of developing shows. It’s struck a deal with Second City, for example, that makes the comedy factory’s clubs and workspaces de facto development zones.

  • Sony’s TV arm is working more closely than ever with its feature sibling to mine the studio’s film library for potential small screen ideas. New takes on “S.W.A.T” and “Charlie’s Angels” are both in the works.

  • Rather than putting up artificial walls between network, cable and syndication, Sony’s TV development process is relatively seamless: Ideas aren’t automatically targeted for specific dayparts or outlets.

    “There’s no longer a restriction on where I’m allowed to make these shows,” Krasnoff says. “We can allow writers the freedom to develop a show and then decide where to take it.”

    Sony’s TV strategy theoretically decreases the odds of finding that next big backend bonanza, since it isn’t taking nearly as many shots as its competitors.

    But — as the early success of “Joan of Arcadia” proves — the studio’s philosophy doesn’t make it impossible to get lucky, either. At the same time, Sony is largely protecting itself from the huge losses its former peers are risking.

    “We’re not trying to sell a zillion cars anymore,” Mosko says. “We don’t think we hurt our odds for success by having more passion for fewer projects. You don’t need bulk to get the big hit.”

    When Sony started inching its way back into primetime a little more than a year ago, a number of network buyers were skeptical. Fox exec VP Craig Erwich says all that’s changed now.

    “We’ve done a bunch of business with them, and they’re great,” he says. “They don’t come in and sell you something they can’t deliver.”

    “(Stringer) blew it up and that really made sense,” adds CBS chairman/CEO Leslie Moonves. “Their model wasn’t working. Once that happened, he could say, ‘OK, let’s go back in, but do it in a smarter way.”

    The paucity of huge overall deals — along with a streamlined development staff — helps keep Sony’s TV overhead small compared with its competish. That’s key to profitability.

    But Mosko also points to the studio’s overall arsenal of small screen weapons when explaining the studio’s business strategy.

    He singles out five properties — syndie giants “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” sudsers “Young and the Restless” and “Days of Our Lives,” and the studio’s distribution rights to “Seinfeld” — as the pillars of Sony’s TV power. None are in primetime, but all are extremely lucrative for the studio.

    “These shows are all icons of our culture, and they’re No. 1 in their categories,” he says. “We look at things as a total television business. I just don’t think you can judge any (studio) just by what they’re doing in primetime.”

    Sony insiders don’t kid themselves about the challenges the studio still faces.

    Because it’s taking a boutique approach, Sony will rarely be the first stop agents make when shopping the hottest writers or concepts. “Agents want the low-hanging fruit,” says one observer.

    And while primetime and cable production are doing just fine, Sony is having to weather the same stormy syndication waters as the rest of the business.

    “There are no givens when we come to work every day. We have to fight for everything we can get,” Mosko says.

    But Sony’s still in the primetime fight — and that’s the good news for a studio some had written off just two years ago.

    “We had to get to that darkest point, but now there’s such a sense of accomplishment,” Mosko says. “People know where we’re going. People know what we’re about.”

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