Upfront season is all about the search for primetime’s Next Big Thing. But for a studio, the win doesn’t come until a series is renewed for season two and beyond.
For all the upheaval in TV, the 2014-15 season generally proved fertile for Big Four broadcast nets. The renewal rate of scripted series introduced during the September-May frame is higher than it has been since at least 2009-10 for all but NBC, according to research by Variety Insight.
ABC renewed seven of its 11 new series for a second round in 2015-16, compared to three of 14 from the 2013-14 season. CBS picked up five of its eight freshman shows, compared to two out of eight from the class of 2013-14. Fox renewed three out of eight, an improvement over two of eight from last year. NBC so far has renewed one out of a total of 10 scripted series introduced during the past season, although decisions are still pending on two late midseason entries (“A.D.: The Bible Continues” and “American Odyssey”). That compares to three out of 11 last year.
“Returning shows is what matters at the end of the day,” said CBS Television Studios president David Stapf. “The name of the game is getting more product into the (syndication) pipeline. We were very happy to have five of six freshman shows renewed on CBS and ‘Jane the Virgin’ at CW.”
The battle to get on the air and stay on the air has never been fiercer at a time when viewers can dine off a menu of hundreds of series, new and old.
“You’re not only competing against (new) cable and digital shows — you’re competing against every show ever made,” said Jonnie Davis, president of creative affairs for 20th Century Fox TV.
Davis took on the day-to-day reins of the studio this year in partnership with Howard Kurtzman, 20th’s president of business operations, following the elevation of former 20th TV chiefs Gary Newman and Dana Walden last July to the larger Fox TV Group chairman posts overseeing the network and the studio. Twentieth TV is riding the momentum of a strong year that included an undisputed home-run hit, Fox’s “Empire,” and an innovative comedy entrant in Fox’s “Last Man on Earth.”
The volume of new scripted series pickups by the Big Four and CW was about the same as last year at 41, not including series scheduled to air this summer. (The year-over-year count gets tricky because of the handful of shows, such as NBC’s “Heroes Reborn” and Fox’s “Bordertown,” that were ordered last year but are now set to premiere in 2015-16.)
On the business end, the pendulum has swung back to networks leaning toward orders from sibling studio arms, in order for them to easily control the windowing and off-air licensing strategies that are so crucial to a show’s profitability these days. That made for a tougher environment this year for new orders and renewals for Hollywood’s largest free agents, Warner Bros. TV, Sony Pictures TV and Lionsgate TV. The last-minute pressure to cut co-production deals as a path to a timeslot was in full force this year, more so than in the recent past, execs said.
From a qualitative perspective, execs say the biggest challenge is delivering shows that are not just good but great right out of the box, and distinctly marketable in an arena where viewers have a sea of TV choices. “Undeniable” was the watchword of the season for programmers.
“It’s becoming a smaller needle to thread every year,” said Patrick Moran, exec VP of ABC Studios. “There’s no room for that show that hangs on the schedule without a passionate fanbase. It’s too competitive now. It requires that every show has to have the potential to become (viewers’) favorite show.”