The tug-of-war over program ownership was as front and center for the major networks in this year’s schedule-setting process as sizzle reels and big shrimp at upfront presentations.
The wrangling this time around left no doubt that co-productions are the rule, with rare exceptions, for studios when doing business with non-aligned networks.
The eleventh-hour negotiations over ownership as a condition of getting on the air were so intense that some projects wound up not as full-fledged co-productions yet the network behind-the-scenes commanded a partial stake in the series. That kind of bare-knuckle scheduling was felt at Warner Bros. TV and Sony Pictures TV, the two largest studios without a sibling broadcast network.
Warner Bros. TV had to cut CBS for a piece (described as less than half) of new drama “Training Day,” although the studio retained international distribution rights. Sony Pictures TV did the same with NBC for its fantasy drama “Timeless,” which landed the plum post-“Voice” Monday 10 p.m. slot.
The tally of series orders at each of the major studios underscores the focus on vertical integration. Networks have been inclined to lean toward sibling studio operations for the past two decades, since the FCC’s financial interest in syndication rule was tabled, but the silo effect is even more pronounced this year.
The demand for program ownership has become more vital to networks because of the need to control multiplatform rights that extend far beyond the first-run airing. Networks have greater ability to take advantage of new windowing opportunities if they own the program lock, stock and barrel. The heightened focus on after-market airings also has networks pushing studios to grant “stacking” VOD rights to all episodes of the show’s current season. That has been a point of contention for studios because Netflix in particular will not pay top dollar for off-network acquisitions that have already been widely available via streaming.
Despite all of these pressures, the TV biz’s two largest studios, Warner Bros. TV and 20th Century Fox TV, landed new scripted series across the dial while Sony Pictures TV had a strong selling season, with two of its five shows grabbing coveted time slots: “Timeless” and CBS’ Kevin James comedy “Kevin Can Wait,” which will launch in tandem with “The Big Bang Theory” on Monday in the fall.
Comedy series were in higher demand this cycle than in recent years, with CBS and ABC both expanding to a four-stack of laffers on two nights. ABC and NBC stocked up on femme-led laffers while CBS went for the brawn of James, Matt LeBlanc (CBS TV Studios’ “Man with a Plan”) and Joel McHale (CBSTVS’ “The Great Indoors”). Fantasy and time travel vehicles are also in vogue as represented by “Timeless,” Universal’s “Midnight, Texas,” Warner Bros.’ “Time After Time” and 20th TV’s comedy “Making History.”
In all, Fox commanded a dozen new scripted series orders, 10 of which came from Fox. CBS Television Studios and ABC Studios each received nine, followed by eight apiece for Warner Bros. and Universal Television. Lionsgate parachuted in with one new series, a co-production with CBS on the return of “MacGyver.”
Fox fielded eight dramas and four comedies, with orders that included the NBC drama “This Is Us” and ABC comedy “Speechless.” “In this environment I think delivering great shows to outside parties requires undeniable content,” said Howard Kurtzman, 20th’s president of business operations. Fox also has 16 series returning across the four broadcast networks, making for a 27% year-over-year spike in production for the studio with the 12 new series orders. “Our goal was to deliver terrific shows to Fox and still maintain our output outside,” said Jonnie Davis, 20th’s president of creative affairs.
Among 20th’s most talked-about newcomers is the baseball-themed drama “Pitch.” The series had been set for a midseason launch but on Friday, four days after unveiling its 2016-17 schedule in New York, the network pulled “Pitch” off the bench for a fall slot on Thursdays.
Warner Bros. TV sold new scripted shows to all five networks, including two comedies to NBC (“Powerless” and “Trial & Error”). The studio has 20 series returning, including all seven of its DC Entertainment properties. “Supergirl” has been a big investment for the studio, which meant that working out the deal to relocate the show to CW for season two was an important financial victory. Warner Bros. TV Group president Peter Roth said he has no regrets about sending the show to CBS last year, but is happy to see her join the three other DC-branded shows on CW.
“It enables the show to stick with the creative vision for the character without any boundaries,” Roth said. “We can take advantage of all the great DC properties that are on CW. It will be more successful for us that way.”
As for the deal-making environment, Roth said WB’s focus remains on fielding the shows that networks can’t bear to turn down. The studio’s “Lethal Weapon” reboot got one of the biggest plugs at the Fox upfront, with execs raving about the chemistry between stars Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford. Roth emphasized that quality is the best shield in a tough negotiation.
“Our focus is on making undeniable television,” Roth said. “When we do that, even the pressures that are brought to bear are often not in any way overwhelming.”
At CBS TV Studios, comedy was the big priority this year. The studio has 21 returning scripted series, but a big sitcom hit has remained elusive. CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller, who took over programming last September, had a similar goal for the network. “We worked closely together on shows that seemed like good bets for the network,” Stapf said. LeBlanc’s “Man with a Plan” has been a particularly satisfying project to work on because Stapf, CBS chief Leslie Moonves and others at CBS were part of the team at Warner Bros. TV that launched the actor to stardom with “Friends” back in 1994.
“We were all there back in the beginning,” Stapf said. “It’s kind of nice to be back together again.”
Universal Television logged 10 returning series on top of its new series orders. The new entries include a co-production with CBS on the drama “Pure Genius.” Improving the renewal ratio has been a focus for Universal TV, according to president Bela Bajaria. Securing a second season for promising NBC comedy “Superstore” was a big win for the studio in a year when the bar was high.
“Most of the networks took a hard, thoughtful look at their schedules,” she said. “Even some first-season shows that people liked creatively — networks took a hard look at their schedules as far as the future of those shows and the future of their schedules and ended up not renewing many of them.”
(Pictured: Fox drama “Pitch”)