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Upfronts Analysis: Freshman Series Renewal Rate Improves as Nets Favor Sibling Studios

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.”

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<p>A reboot of the classic comedy that plans to explore the Muppets‘Disney’s stepped-up investment in ABC Studios was evident this year. ABC Studios and its cable unit ABC Signature Studios emerged from upfront week with 13 series orders, nine of which are for ABC. It fielded three series for outside nets — CBS’ “Code Black” and “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” and Fox’s “Grandfathered” — fulfilling a goal of spreading its business to non-Disney outlets. And it was kissed in as a co-production partner on ABC comedies “Uncle Buck,” from Universal TV, and “Dr. Ken,” from Sony TV.ABC Studios’ orders included the ABC comedies “The Real O’Neals” and “The Muppets,” both of which were passion projects for their respective creators, Moran said. ABC’s comedy needs were limited this year, following the success of ABC Studios’ frosh entry “Black-ish” and 20th TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” But Moran saw a clear opportunity for “Grandfathered” at Fox, where the comedy lineup is undergoing an overhaul, just as it is at NBC.“The ABC comedy brand is so easy to identify right now,” Moran said. “It will be interesting to see how the others evolve.”

The 20th Century Fox TV shop fielded 11 new shows, including a comedy for CBS, “Life in Pieces,” that landed the plum post-“Big Bang Theory” timeslot. NBC also ordered comedy “The Carmichael Show” earlier this spring for a summer debut.

At Fox, the change at the top with Walden and Newman overseeing programming for the network as well as the studio operations has made for a better collaboration across the board. The timing of the move was essential given how hard it is to break new shows, Kurtzman noted. “There’s never been better communication between us,” he said. “It’s helping us to become a better studio.”

Kurtzman and others also noted that the chase for talent even at the rungs below showrunners and stars has become more intense because so many creatives are working on existing shows. Twentieth became proactive in making deals with writers identified as strong prospects for staff positions well before the series pickups were set in stone.

“When you see younger writers that you want to work with, you have to move quickly,” Davis said.

Warner Bros. TV this year delivered seven new scripted series, including two of the most talked-about newcomers, CBS’ “Supergirl” and NBC’s “Blindspot.”

The WB shield was strong enough to resist what was undoubtedly pressure for co-production deals in both cases. The studio had a big bet on the CBS comedic action-drama “Rush Hour” and the Fox drama “Lucifer.” In addition to the scripted skeins, WBTV also has two unscripted series bound for NBC, “First Dates” and the Ellen DeGeneres-produced “Little Big Shots.”

Warner Bros. TV also had at least two prospects that may be shopped elsewhere: “Curse of the Fuentes Women,” a magical-realism romance developed for NBC; and “The Advocate,” a medical drama for ABC.

Universal Television has a dozen shows bound for broadcast, most of them on NBC and one for ABC: “Uncle Buck,” a co-production with ABC Studios. The count includes two summer NBC entries, comedies “Mr. Robinson” and “The Carmichael Show” (a co-production with 20th Century Fox TV).

Universal TV’s high-profile newbies including Jennifer Lopez in cop drama “Shades of Blue,” Eva Longoria’s backstage comedy “Hot & Bothered” and the return of “Coach” for a new generation.

Universal also pulled off a big save with “The Mindy Project,” which was canceled after three seasons by Fox but scooped up a few days later by Hulu. A third-season cancelation is the cruelest cut for a studio because the investment is significant but the number of episodes is too low to squeeze maximum value out of the library rights. Fortunately for the studio and star-creator Mindy Kaling, “Mindy” reruns have done so well on Hulu that it was a no-brainer for the digital outlet to order an additional two seasons, which will take it to around 120 half-hours.

CBS Television Studios also had a big save in landing “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW after Showtime passed on the original pilot. The series starring Rachel Bloom will be reconceived as an hour for the CW, which has paired it with the studio’s own “Jane the Virgin.”

All told, CBS TV Studios grabbed orders for five new broadcast series, with three dramas and one comedy on CBS in addition to CW’s “Crazy Ex.”

GAME OF SILENCE --  Pilot  -- Pictured: (l-r) David Lyons as Jackson Brooks, Michael Raymond-James as Gil Harris, Larenz Tate as Shawn Polk -- (Photo by: Bob Mahoney/NBC)

Sony Pictures TV had three shows ordered out of the upfront derby: NBC dramas “The Player” and “Game of Silence” and ABC comedy “Dr. Ken.” Plus the studio has a straight-to-series order from Fox for historical drama “Houdini and Doyle.”

“Game of Silence” and “Dr. Ken” became co-productions with Universal TV and ABC Studios, respectively. “Silence,” a dark cable-esque drama about a group of friends haunted by an incident from childhood, was one of the most buzzed-about scripts of the season. NBC is saving it for a midseason debut.

With another upfront season now in the rearview mirror, many network and studio execs will take a breather this week. But work begins on getting the fall shows on their feet and scouting new development right after the Memorial Day holiday. Word is that Fox and possibly other networks aim to fast-track a few 2016-17 projects to shoot in late summer.

(Pictured from top: 20th Century Fox TV’s “Life in Pieces,” ABC Studios’ “The Muppets,” Warner Bros. TV’s “Blindspot,” Universal TV’s “Hot & Bothered,” CBS TV Studios’ “Crazy Ex Girlfriend” and Sony Pictures TV’s “Game of Silence.”)

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