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Upfront 2017: Studios Turn Down Volume as Broadcast Nets Play Safe

Of the Big Six television studios, only two — CBS and Warner Bros. — sold more new broadcast series heading into upfronts this year than they did last year. For the rest, volume was either flat or down.

As studio chiefs deplane in L.A. and begin looking ahead, they are considering how vertical integration and ratings compression are affecting the marketplace — and how to respond to an increasingly conservative industry.

“I’m already thinking about next season and how to address this,” said ABC studios president Patrick Moran. “If the broadcast networks are becoming a little bit more patient and more of the bubble shows found their way back onto the schedule, what is that going to mean going forward?”

For returning series, the tolerance for marginal ratings performance appears to be on the upswing. That was evident when, one day after canceling “Timeless,” NBC un-canceled it, renewing the Sony Pictures Television-produced time-travel drama for a second season despite its poor showing in what is arguably the most comfortable timeslot on television, 10 p.m. Monday after “The Voice.” The reverse cancellation likely took a spot that would have gone to another freshman drama at NBC.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly more challenging to launch new shows anywhere in any time period,” Moran said. “And I think the idea that you can take something off the schedule and assume that you can do as well or better is not a safe assumption.”

Warner Bros. Television Group president Peter Roth said that the networks showed “appropriate caution” in throttling back on new series orders — but sounded a note of caution about that caution.

“The business is clearly changing,” Roth said. “It’s a natural instinct to be a little bit more cautious. I just fear that the caution prevents an opportunity to be daring and different. Because none of us know where the next hit is coming from, it’s something we need to be willing to embrace.”

The continued focus on vertical integration made finding homes for new series a challenge. Of the four affiliated studios, only Universal Television managed to make an off-net sale — “Wisdom of the Crowd,” a co-production with CBS Television Studios that landed at the CBS television network.

With crossing corporate lines becoming a nearly insurmountable challenge, ABC Studios, CBS Television Studios, 20th Century Fox Television, and Universal Television found their capacity to sell in large part limited by the needs of their sister networks. With fewer shows canceled this year and a high degree of stability on broadcasters’ schedules, that capacity was in some cases diminished.

“It’s going to get harder putting shows on networks from unaffiliated studios,” said 20th Century Fox Television co-president Howard Kurtzman. “But we’re up for the challenge.”

The upside to schedule stability was seeing longtime money makers renewed. “I think you have to point to the two-year pickup of ‘This Is Us’ [at NBC] and the two-year pickup of ‘Modern Family’ [at ABC] and say in any year and any time those were big wins,” said Kurtzman’s fellow co-president, Jonnie Davis.

For unaffiliated studios, longer odds and fewer at bats meant once again agreeing to co-production arrangements to sweeten the pot for buyers. Of the three sales Sony managed to make, all were co-productions.

“It’s important for corporations that have a network and studio for the ownership stake to be significant,” said CBS Television Studios president David Stapf.

The same falling live-television ratings that have made it more difficult to discern hits from non-hits also compels networks to consider shows more and more as long-term properties whose profitability extends for beyond their presence on-air. Having a well-stocked library that can be exploited on streaming platforms and in international markets is an ever-growing consideration.

For studio bosses focused on library building, fewer new shows mean fewer titles to exploit in the long run. But if networks let niche series run longer, those series become more valuable in post-broadcast windows.

As such, studios may be forced to shift their emphasis from volume to staying power.

“Our agenda this year was to control our volume in terms of development and focus on things that we really loved and believed in,” said Pearlena Igbokwe, president of Universal Television.

Moran sees that attitude as a popular one going forward.

“As I look across the schedules and see what came back,” he said, “it feels like fewer but better shots is a good approach to development next year.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report


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