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Variety’s 2014 Breakthrough TV Series Winner: ‘Under the Dome’

CBS series makes big waves in first season

The Variety Breakthrough of the Year Awards, which recognizes a select group of rising stars in entertainment and technology, will be held Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show. 

The development process that brought “Under the Dome” to CBS and Amazon Prime screens last summer is a key example of how the old rules of network television are disappearing fast.

The Eye’s gamble on a high-concept summer fantasy series, built on the foundation of an equally exotic business model, has paid off in every way for CBS Corp. and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV banner.

The network fielded a hit series — still the holy grail for any TV conglom — that lifted the Eye’s ratings during the usually sleepy off season. And it forged a deal template that allowed the show to pay for itself from the moment production began, thanks to expert leveraging of the demand for marquee content in the white-hot SVOD marketplace.

The icing on the cake was landing “Breaking Bad” co-star Dean Norris to anchor the “Dome” ensemble, and having the show bow as anticipation for “Bad’s” finale hit fever pitch.

CBS is expanding on its “Dome” deal this summer with a second season that will be preceded by additional SVOD licensing (beyond Amazon) of the first season’s 13 episodes. And “Dome” will have company this summer with another drama series set to follow the same basic template (with a few twists): the Halle Berry starrer “Extant,” also from Amblin TV.

The road CBS traveled to “Dome” illuminates the teamwork among top execs that is often cited as one of CBS’ most valuable assets.

The project began in 2011 at CBS Corp.’s pay cabler Showtime, which was eager to be in business with Spielberg on a Stephen King novel adaptation. But with limited shelf space, Showtime entertainment prexy David Nevins knew it would be a while before “Dome’s” day would come, so he asked his CBS counterpart, Nina Tassler, and CBS TV Studios prexy David Stapf to give the script a read.

The timing was serendipitous because Tassler and her team were on the hunt for original scripted series to enliven the Eye’s summer schedule. But delivering on King’s concept — an invisible dome suddenly descends on a small town, cutting it off from the rest of the world — would take a hefty budget. Tassler turned to Scott Koondel, CBS’ chief corporate content licensing officer, to see if he could come up with a creative financing solution.

Koondel had no doubt that the combination of Spielberg, King and a serialized thriller was money in the SVOD arena, particularly if the deal was sweetened by giving the platform quick access to episodes.

A four-day delay was structured so the network could make the most of the C3 viewing window (live and three days’ DVR playback), which counts against ad sales.

It was CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves who gave the final go-ahead to break the mold and allow the SVOD window to open four days after the network premiere. That amounted to a philosophical shift as CBS and other networks have mostly been cautious about selling current network series to SVOD players, lest that exposure erode the show’s traditional syndication value.

The deal with Amazon Prime delivered more than $700,000 in licensing revenue to help pay for the production, in addition to big contributions in marketing support. (International sales of the series were also robust given the bankability of Steven + Stephen + Norris.)

Amazon was a good fit as a “Dome” partner because the Internet giant was able to carefully target promotion to those whose activity on the site made them good bets to check out the show. And that process will only get more methodical for season two, as the partners build on last year’s experience.

The home run with “Dome” was all the more satisfying to the CBS team because it validated their willingness to take a risk. The credit, Koondel says, belongs at the top.

“The great thing about working at CBS is that you always feel like whatever it is you’re doing, (Moonves) is invested in it with you,” he says. “You never feel like you’re going to hang if you make a mistake. He was in the ‘Dome’ deal with us all along, and that creates a good cohesive working environment for everyone.”

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