Pilot season was good for the major studios, which emerged from upfront week with orders for 50 new scripted comedy and drama series, up by more than 20% from last year.
Production of new scripted primetime programming for the Big Four and CW is more concentrated than ever before among six suppliers: Warner Bros. TV, 20th Century Fox TV, CBS TV Studios, ABC Studios, Universal TV and Sony Pictures TV.
Execs report a burst of last-minute wrangling this year over network efforts to force their way into co-production pacts as a condition of series greenlights. CBS and NBC in particular were said to be more heavy-handed in negotiations this time around than in the recent past.
But generally speaking, the mood was upbeat after the parade of schedule presentations. The five nets ordered 22 new comedies, up from 16 last year, and 28 drama series, up from 22.
In a sharp turnaround from the doom and gloom of just a few years ago, the primetime production studio biz is buoyed by the headwinds in the content marketplace stirred by the growing appetite among SVOD players for TV series.
The new sources of coin for programming have made studios more willing to invest in high-end series, particularly serialized shows that had fallen out of favor as the traditional syndie biz slumped in recent years.
Between homevid options, streaming deals, branded integration and ancillary licensing opportunities , producers have a patchwork quilt of options for financing shows.“Nowadays every show is its own little business,” said 20th TV chairman Gary Newman.
“It speaks to what’s exciting about our business, because the same strategy doesn’t work for everything now. If you have a serialized drama or a sophisticated adult company, there are very different opportunities to monetize those shows in different windows. Our job as a content supplier is to make great compelling programming and find the appropriate partners for it,” he said. “We find that if you believe in something, you’re better off just letting the show be what it wants to be and then figure out how to take advantage of the (licensing) opportunities.”
Twentieth TV nabbed 11 new series this year, a big jump from last year when it fielded five new comedies, none of which secured a renewal.
‘The TV content business is not for the faint of heart,” Newman said. “But we believe in the power of content more than ever because it is no longer just defined by ratings success.”
Twentieth’s high-profile newbies include the CBS comedy “The Crazy Ones” (pictured above) starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, which landed the plum post-“Big Bang Theory” slot on Eye’s Thursday night sked; ABC laffer “Back in the Game”; and Fox drama “Sleepy Hollow.” Fox and 20th TV also made headlines with the deal to revive “24” as a 12-hour mini next summer.
Warner Bros. TV was once again the biz’s top supplier, fielding 13 series including two dramas from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot banner (NBC’s “Believe” and Fox’s “Almost Human”); Chuck Lorre’s “Mom” and Bruckheimer TV drama “Hostages” for CBS; and the Rebel Wilson’s “Super Fun Night” for ABC (pictured below).
A notable trend in this year’s ordering patterns was the consideration given to ensuring that schedules stay fresh throughout the season, even in the summer. CBS has earmarked two high-profile frosh dramas for its Monday 10 p.m. slot: “Hostages” and the Josh Holloway-Marg Helgenberger crimer “Intelligence.”
“All of the networks seem to be adapting to year-round programming,” said Jamie Erlicht, co-prexy of programming at Sony Pictures TV with Zack Van Amburg. “Every network now has a 52-week strategy.”
Sony Pictures TV had its best pilot season showing in decade with seven series spread across the Big Four nets. That’s a jump from last year when it delivered four skeins, none of which have been renewed (although NBC comedy “Save Me” has yet to air).
The studio went into upfront week with a 22-episode order in hand from NBC for “The Michael J. Fox Show.” NBC drama “The Blacklist,” starring James Spader, was one of the buzziest titles of upfront week, as was ABC domestic comedy “The Goldbergs” (pictured below).
“If there was a theme this year for is it was that networks were interested in very clear concepts and stars,” said Van Amburg, Sony Pictures TV. “Marketing dollars are tighter than ever, and people are consuming TV in different ways. There was a resurgence of interest in stars who have real muscle and are able to attract an audience with our without a big marketing campaign.”
CBS’ decision to pass on Sony’s “Beverly Hills Cop” redo was among the big surprises of the week, given the involvement of Eddie Murphy. The studio plans to shop the project to elsewhere, and will look to pique international interest in the property this week as TV buyers from around the world gather for L.A. Screenings market. Without commenting specifically on the “Beverly Hills Cop” situation, Erlicht emphasized the sea-change that now sees some shows land in the U.S. well after lining up the bulk of their financing from overseas outlets.
“We are very mindful of our worldwide presence,” Erlicht said. “We are always thinking about what RTL or TF1 might want when we’re developing our pilots.”
Comedy was a big priority for CBS this year, and thus it was a prime focus for CBS TV Studios. “The Millers” (pictured below) and “We Are Men” hail from top showrunners Greg Garcia and Rob Greenberg, respectively, and both mark big investments in the form for the Eye. “We Are Men” is notably a single-camera show, something CBS has tried to put on its air for years.
“We’re proud of our comedy output this year,” said CBS TV Studios prexy David Stapf. “We have showrunners who can take us the distance.”
In all, CBS TV Studios landed eight pickups, including four drama co-productions with Warner Bros. TV for CW. There was an emphasis on distinctive setting this year in drama development, Stapf noted.
CW’s “Reign,” a costumer about Mary, Queen of Scots’ young adulthood in France, was a CBS TV Studios-nurtured property that was the brainchild of “Hawaii Five-0” co-exec producer Stephanie Sengupta.
“It was something Stephanie had wanted to do since college,” Stapf said. “It’s a perfect combination for the CW of young people dealing with unbridled love and shifting alliances for people who are about to be ruling countries. It’s unlike anything else out there.”
“Reckless” is a potboiler set in Charleston, S.C., revolving around the budding romance of a Southerner and an outsider who are forced to handle a police sex scandal that is rocking the city. The series will be shot in Charleston to maintain the look and feel of the pilot. “You really feel you’re there in this show. This beautiful city is part of the story,” Stapf said.
ABC Studios landed nine series orders, all for ABC with the exception of “Intelligence” at CBS. The highest-wattage project on ABC Studios slate this year is “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” a drama that reps the Mouse House’s efforts to extend the glow of the Marvel brand to its broadcast network.
The big question remains whether Marvel’s action-drama milieu is a fit with the femme skew of ABC’s primetime aud. Bridging that divide was something that was top of mind during the development process with Joss Whedon and his team, said Patrick Moran, ABC Studios’ senior veep and head of development.
“SHIELD” has a classic procedural element of an elite team of agents investigating strange phenomena, but even with the built-in awareness of property, the show will rise or fall on the strength of its characters.
“The idea is that the show should never really feel like it’s all about the cases, but really about the relationships among this particular team,” Moran said.
ABC’s other dramas run the gamut from Tricia Helfer as a Texas Ranger in “Killer Women” to a group of gas station workers in Queens winning the lottery (“Lucky 7”), to a reality-bending thriller (“Resurrection”) involving dead people returning to a small town (but don’t call them zombies), to a spinoff (“Once Upon a Time in Wonderland”) that landed what is arguably ABC’s toughest time slot, Thursday 8 p.m.
“It feels like every network is trying to figure out what that next noisy drama hit is going to be,” Moran said. “A lot of this year’s shows have big high-concept hooks to them. It feels like people were doing things that were a little left-of-center this year.”
Getting an order for “Intelligence” (pictured below) at CBS was an important goal for ABC Studios, which has been looking “for targeted opportunities on other networks,” Moran said. “This was the dream project that came in as a great pitch (from writer Michael Seitzman) and the material was strong enough to get us Josh, who was very in-demand by everyone,” he said.
The same is true for Universal TV and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The Fox comedy will be one of the fall season’s most anticipated shows thanks to the pairing of “Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg, in his sitcom debut, with Andre Braugher.
The reconstituted Universal TV is determined to be a supplier to networks outside of the NBCUniversal family. It got started last year in landing “The Mindy Project” at Fox (which second a sophomore season renewal), and “Brooklyn” is another signal that the studio is serious about putting A-list resources (showrunners Dan Goor and Michael Schur) on shows for other networks. (That even extends to cable as U TV is the home of “Bates Motel,” which nabbed a second-season order from A&E last month.)
Universal TV’s other five orders went to three comedies (“About a Boy,” “The Family Guide” and “Sean Saves the World”) and two dramas (“Chicago PD,” “Ironside”) for NBC.
Just as CBS is in the hunt for single-cam comedies, NBC hungers for a multi-cam hit. Universal TV exec veep Bela Bajaria aims to fill that void with the Sean Hayes starrer “Sean Saves the World” (pictured below), from sitcom vet Victor Fresco.
“We are really happy with the auspices on all of our shows,” Bajaria said.
The surprise on Universal TV’s slate is the “Chicago PD” spinoff of the Dick Wolf drama “Chicago PD.” The latter show had a promising first season but not the kind of ratings heat that would suggest a spinoff was warranted so soon. Bajaria said the concept came together “organically” out of storylines toward the end of “Fire’s” season. The NBC and U TV teams are banking on the skill of Wolf and scribes Derek Haas and Michael Brandt.
“It was a natural progression of a storyline that played out so well — that was the discovery process, not that we set out to find a spinoff,” she said. “Dick Wolf knows what it takes to make a great show.”