Spielberg spins for smallscreen

Helmer casts long shadow over fall series

He may not have been in Manhattan last week, but Steven Spielberg was hard to miss at the 2011-12 upfronts.

The helmer was out of the country on vacation, and yet his presence couldn’t have loomed any larger over the TV industry as it laid out its plans to advertisers for the fall. Spielberg, as executive producer of three new series scheduled for primetime in the coming season, is becoming the kind of force in TV that he’s long been in film.

He’ll make his presence felt first on Fox this fall, with the highly anticipated prehistoric drama “Terra Nova” that he and Peter Chernin are executive producing for 20th Century Fox Television. The pilot has been delayed due to the complexity that comes with perfecting 250 digital effects, a Spielbergian touch if there ever was one: technological wizardry driving cutting-edge creative.

Then there are two more big bets awaiting midseason premieres. NBC is tuning up musical drama “Smash” with Debra Messing and Katherine McPhee while ABC has yet to schedule “The River,” a sci-fi thriller set on the Amazon that reunites Spielberg with “Paranormal Activity” director Oren Peli.

With a trio of projects coming to broadcast, Spielberg’s TV footprint can already be sized up on cable. In June, he’ll tee up the alien-invasion series “Falling Skies” on TNT. He already has a pair of series running on Showtime, with “United States of Tara” about to wrap its third season and “The Borgias” about to complete its first.

Six productions is more than Spielberg and DreamWorks TV have ever had active at one given time, and that list could grow. Spielberg may yet have a fourth new series on air given his involvement in another ambitious 20th Century Fox TV drama series, “Locke & Key,” that Fox passed on but may still find a cable buyer.

In addition, “River” writer Michael Green is at work adapting the Stephen King tome “Under the Dome” in preparation for DreamWorks TV to shop to broadcast and cable buyers in a few months.

The sheer volume of series Spielberg has is putting him in the elite company of some of the medium’s most prolific producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer, Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear and Dick Wolf.

Spielberg has a bumper crop on his hands, yet it was never his intent to crank up the quantity at DreamWorks TV. By design, the TV wing at DreamWorks is a small unit, run by 16-year company vets Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank. Development chief Lindsey Springer was recruited about three years ago to help manage the growing slate.

“This year we’re really excited about the variety of shows that we have on the air,” Frank says. “It stems from Steven encouraging us to do things that are unique in their storytelling and their backdrops. He pushes us to do things that aren’t being done on other shows and to take risks.”

DreamWorks TV does not typically bring financing to the table on its projects, but it does bring the invaluable commodity of ideas generated by one of the most successful director-producers in showbiz history.

NBC’s “Smash,” for one, was Spielberg’s brainstorm about doing a show-within-a-show drama about the Herculean effort it takes to mount a Broadway production, from the perspective of various key constituencies: producers, writers, tunesmiths, thesps, etc. The project was initially set up at Showtime in 2009; it was re-routed to NBC earlier this year in one of the first moves by Robert Greenblatt after he left the pay cabler to head entertainment for the Peacock.

It’s tempting to suspect Spielberg lends his name but not his hand to some of the DreamWorks TV shows, but those who have worked with him vouch that nothing could be further from the truth. Even last year when he spent months in the U.K. lensing his upcoming pic “War Horse,” he was reading scripts and weighing in on various matters involving “Terra Nova” and the other projects.

“He does not put his name on things unless he is intimately involved with them,” Frank says. “And he does the work.”

Spielberg’s relationship also plays a big part in bringing strong creative auspices to DreamWorks TV productions. “The River” came about last summer when Spielberg was talking with “Paranormal” helmer Peli about possible unconventional ideas for a smallscreen chiller.

“The notion of doing a TV series in the same cinema verite vein as ‘Paranormal’ was incredibly exciting to Steven and he really engaged with Oren on it,” Falvey says.

Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV, says Spielberg is a magnet for top talent, giving his projects a big leg up.

“Steven is the type of person who is going to attract great writers, producers,” Walden says. “When he decides to get serious about television, the creative community responds.”

Because it is a free-agent producer doing so much business around town, DreamWorks TV in the past few years has refined its own template for dealmaking with the majors, and it’s a safe bet that the terms are more generous than a typical pact for even established producers. This has taken a lot of the agita out of the business side for DreamWorks, because with few exceptions, either the studio agrees to its terms or it doesn’t.

Beyond all the creative benefits, Spielberg’s name recognition alone brings value to a project. Networks realize dropping his name in the first few seconds of a promo lends gravitas to product in a TV world that still has precious few household-name creators.

“He brings an unbelievable pedigree,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP of scheduling, planning and distribution at ABC. “You come to expect a certain level of quality. You know it’s going to be epic.”

On that note, Spielberg is hardly alone; just look at his fellow “Super 8” executive producer J.J. Abrams, who has kept his own busy side career in TV going with two new series unspooling next season, CBS’ “Person of Interest” and Fox’s “Alcatraz.”

For Spielberg, diving deep into TV is a return to his roots. He cut his teeth in the early 1970s helming episodes of skeins including “Night Gallery,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Columbo” before graduating to directing distinctive TV movies like “Duel,” which gave him the entree to the film side of the Universal lot.

But Spielberg never completely retreated from TV. In the 1980s and 1990s his company fielded “Amazing Stories” and “Seaquest DSV,” among other shows, and he played a key role in the development of “ER.” More recently he’s been involved with mega miniseries including HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” Syfy’s “Taken” and TNT’s “Into the West.”

Falvey and Frank acknowledge that the rapid growth of DreamWorks TV’s slate of series will make the coming season something of an endurance test for them. But after nurturing a project like “Smash” from the germ of an idea, they’re eager to finally execute Spielberg’s vision now that the stars have aligned for the show (which counts legit heavyweights Neil Meron, Craig Zadan, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on its creative team).

“The philosophy at this company has always been quality over quantity and pursuing original ideas that we go with when they’re ready,” Falvey says. “The hardest thing is getting these pilots on the air and then getting series to stay on the air. Our job is to make sure that qualitatively they’re given the best possible chance.”