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Uptempo TV biz at upfronts

Execs cheered by ad, syndie rebound

The mood also brightened this year as every network had at least one (and sometimes more than one) freshman show to show off to advertisers as a success story: Think “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “NCIS: L.A.,” “The Good Wife,” “Parenthood” and “The Vampire Diaries.”

“Network TV is still the big tent,” Moonves told advertisers. “More people watched ‘NCIS’ this season then went to see ‘Avatar.’ ”

Plus, now that the nets are starting to generate serious money from retransmission coin, web execs were more willing to spend on shows. And it’s not just studios that will be the beneficiary. With all those new shows to promote, nets like NBC have already promised to bump up their marketing budgets big-time.

Even the deal-making went smoother in the past, insiders said, particularly because in many cases pacts were negotiated upfront.

That led to fewer last-minute arm-twisting moments — a sharp contrast to recent years, when the nets aggressively attempted to slice license fees.

“That (positive) tone carried right through the business making and development process,” Walden said. Twentieth fielded a new comedy for NBC, “Friends With Benefits,” and a half-dozen rookies for Fox, including “Lonestar” and a laffer, “Raising Hope,” from “My Name Is Earl” creator Greg Garcia.

Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth agreed, noting that his studio has to work hard to get product on the air, given that it’s not directly aligned with a Big Four network. But he also touted that independence as an advantage, noting that Warner Bros. TV landed new series at four of the five nets (save Fox), and returning shows on all five.

CBS TV Studios prexy David Stapf echoed the sentiments of his colleagues in emphasizing the importance of getting shows to stick, as his unit did this season with “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “The Good Wife.” Drama was a priority for the Eye’s studio wing this year, and it landed very different hours on CBS’ fall sked — “Blue Bloods,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “The Defenders” — plus the midseason order for the “Criminal Minds” spinoff.

“Keeping shows on is the only way this business works,” Stapf said. “Next year at this time if we’re returning two or three of our new shows, I’ll be ecstatic.” Meanwhile, the networks were also more emboldened to make big scheduling gambles, and made huge bets in timeslots that had been discounted in recent years: Particularly the 8 p.m. hour and on Friday nights.

CBS made the boldest move of the upfront, switching “The Big Bang Theory” to Thursday nights at 8. They probably wouldn’t have done such a move in a weak economy — but now that there are dollars on the table, adding their hottest comedy to Thursday, the most-sought after night for advertisers, made sense.

“I applaud them for their audacity,” Roth said.

But CBS wasn’t the only net making key changes. Fox shifted “Glee” to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays (at least on a temporary basis, until midseason), while the CW swapped its Monday and Tuesday night skeds. NBC decided to move “Law and Order: SVU” back down to 9 p.m. to help launch its L.A. sister.After two years of bruising upfronts, network and studio execs can be excused for indulging in a bit of irrational exuberance at their presentations this week.

The Big Four nets are about to wrap another season with steep declines in viewing — even “American Idol” is way off its game — and the smallscreen is preparing to say goodbye to tentpoles like “Lost” and “24” next week. But no matter. This year marked the return of the upbeat upfront as net execs accentuated the positive about the state of a fast-changing business.

“What the past year has demonstrated is that there’s good reason to be hopeful and excited about the network TV business,” said 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden.

“What a difference a year makes,” CBS chief Leslie Moonves said at the Eye’s upfront presentation Wednesday. “All the trends are positive. … We’ve always believed in the power of network TV. Last year, many who wrote off network TV were proven wrong.”

An improving economy, a slew of new primetime hits and a (mostly) stable executive roster at the networks made for the smoothest pilot season and upfront week in recent memory. Two years ago, the nets limped into the upfront after suffering through the 100-day writers strike. Then last year the economic meltdown put a huge dent in the domestic ad market, which in turn had nets slashing programming and development budgets. This year, by contrast, NBC alone provided a stimulus package to the creative community with a whopping 13 series ordered, many of them from high-priced heavy hitting talent. ABC picked up 10 skeins.

A strong scatter market has network execs bullish on the advertising marketplace. Fox sales chief Jon Nesvig agreed, “Conversations this year are totally different than they were last year … we know there’s going to be more money in the upfront.”

That certainly goes a long way to improving the mood. But the creative tone of this year’s development was also noticeably different from recent years. Less apocalypse, more blue sky. That was evident in buzzed-about newcomers like CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0,” ABC’s “No Ordinary Family” and NBC’s “Undercovers.” Fox is taking a swing at a moody HBO-esque character piece in “Lonestar” and a high-octane beat cops vehicle in Shawn Ryan’s “Ride-Along,” along with the ultra-ambitious Steven Spielberg-produced prehistoric actioner “Terra Nova.”

“At each network I think you saw a theme of lighter, brighter, more accessible (shows) and different styles of shows,” said Zack Van Amburg, Sony Pictures TV’s co-prexy of programming and production along with Jamie Erlicht. “You’re seeing a lot of comedy and more close-ended dramas. And comedy is certainly the headline of this year.”

Fox loaded up on four new laffers in its biggest push on the live-action front in years. ABC is building on its momentum this season led by “Modern Family.” NBC picked up no fewer than four half-hours and an hourlong romantic anthology series as part of its primetime renovation plan.

What’s more, the return of a booming off-net marketplace has networks and studios feeling better about rolling the dice on new series.

Studios are encouraged to put the money on the screen after stylish frosh success story “NCIS: Los Angeles” landed big bucks from USA Network for syndie rights after less than two months on the air. “The Big Bang Theory” cheered the hearts of studio execs everywhere by landing a record-setting cable off-net deal on the weekend before the upfronts.

Warner Bros. TV didn’t pinch pennies on J.J. Abrams’ “Undercovers” pilot, nor did CBS TV Studios with “Hawaii Five-0,” as both pilots had budgets that approached eight figures, according to industry buzz. Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Chase” for NBC also delivered the producer’s trademark cinematic production values.

Lionsgate TV moved opportunistically when a project that originated at Sony Pictures TV, Will Arnett-Keri Russell starrer “Running Wilde,” found itself looking for a new financial backer as it closed in on an order from Fox. Lionsgate tends to focus on cable production, where the upfront risks to the studio are lessened by smaller budgets and episode orders. But the players involved in “Running Wilde” — which marks an “Arrested Development” reunion of Arnett and scribes Mitch Hurwitz and Jim Vallely — were dead-set on keeping the project alive and willing to dial down their initial take in order to secure Lionsgate’s backing.

“We pick our moments for broadcast (development), and this seemed like one of those smart moments,” said Lionsgate TV prexy Kevin Beggs. “We were able to tailor an economic model that allowed us to do it in a more disciplined fashion and a way that made sense for us.”

Beyond the Eye, however, major changes were kept to a minimum. Stability ruled, perhaps, because the nets are going to have their hands full launching all of those shows. But there may also be a benefit to staying put in order to make sure those dollars in the marketplace don’t float anywhere else.

After all, for all the joy coming out of the networks, there’s also an underlying concern that it’s only a matter of time before a significant number of dollars are permanently siphoned away by online.

And that explains why the networks — even cabler Turner — are now playing nice. Compared to past years, network bashing was kept to a minimum. Instead, the networks had a united message: Television still accounts for 98% or so of all program viewing.

Among the other trends at the upfronts:

  • The networks are living up to their promise to add more diversity to their rosters. “Undercovers,” “Outlaw” and “Nikita” all feature persons of color in the lead, while there’s also a diverse ethnic makeup in shows such as “Outsourced” and “Hawaii Five-O.”

    “It’s a great time in broadcast TV, to see all the strides we’ve made,” said CW Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff, whose “Nikita” stars Asian-American actress Maggie Q.

  • Midseason is just as important as ever. “Lost” and “24” may be gone, but the nets held back several big guns for later, including Fox’s “Ride-Along,” ABC’s “Mr. Sunshine” and a slew of NBC projects.

  • Execs are still sometimes going with their gut. NBC picked up “Law and Order: Los Angeles,” while Fox placed “The Good Guys” — which has a ton of fans internally at the network — on the fall sked before seeing how the show performs.

  • The sheer lack of “Glee” and “Modern Family” clones. Both shows were the sensations of the year, but the nets avoided attempts to duplicate them.

    “That’s the way development should be done,” Walden said. “No one is trying to replicate ‘Glee’ – that’s a high wire act.”

    As for “Modern Family,” Walden noted that several shows do indeed borrow from that sitcom’s unique multi-story layering. Several new romantic comedies follow the independent exploits of couples who are intertwined via family or friendship, she noted.

  • Lead-ins matter. NBC, Fox and CBS are placing major shows at 8 p.m. (such as “Glee” and “The Big Bang Theory”) in order to launch series. (ABC and NBC also have some new shows at 8 p.m. that they hope will be self-starters.)

  • The vets are back. David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf, Paul Reiser, Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman (exec producers of “Lonestar”), Tom Selleck — names from the 1980s and ’90s, all with new projects.