Since Sam Esmail signed his first overall deal with Universal Cable Prods. in 2015, peak TV has kept peaking. That year, according to FX research, 422 adult original scripted series premiered across broadcast, cable and streaming. This year, more than 500 are anticipated. The number of original scripted series on streaming-only platforms could triple from what it was just three years ago.
With that increase in the volume of programming has come a scramble among studios to lock up top showrunning talent that can deliver quality series to help fill pipelines that are growing ever wider. Esmail likens the current moment in television to a previous era in movies, when demand for filmmakers handed them economic power that they leveraged into greater creative freedom.
“The economics of the moment are allowing showrunners to be high value,” the “Mr. Robot” and “Homecoming” executive producer says. “The overall deals are kind of evidence of that.”
The economic value that high-profile showrunners now command is evident in the nine-figure deals signed in the past year by Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes at Netflix and Greg Berlanti at Warner Bros. Television.
But peak TV has also been a creative boon to showrunners, for whom an overall deal with a studio is almost de rigueur once entrusted with a series.
“As a writer for so many years, it’s part of the nature of the thing that you’re essentially freelancing,” says Dave Andron. “Except for rare occasions, you don’t know if your show is coming back. I think that, after a while, can get to be tough on people, especially people who have families. It’s sort of obvious, but the security is ideal, knowing that you’re going to be doing work with them on that level is rewarding, and it’s not just the financial.”
Andron was a writer for several years on FX’s “Justified.” In 2016 he signed his first overall deal with FX Prods. According to Andron, signing that deal felt as important to him as the moment when he received his first writing job. He now serves as executive producer and showrunner on “Snowfall” for FX.
“I respect the people at FX so much, and them saying we respect you creatively as a person and want to be in business with you for years down the line, it was incredibly validating,” he says.
For FX, Andron is a homegrown talent — one who has spent most of his career working for the brand. The company has a lengthy history of elevating writers from its shows to places of greater importance in its creative ecosystem. Since the launch of “Atlanta,” FX has signed overall deals with multiple writers, directors and producers from the series, including Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Stefani Robinson, Hiro Murai and Amy Seimetz.
“If you raise a player through your farm system, I think you’re hoping that they’re going to perform for you and you’re going to take care of them as a result,” Andron says. “You don’t want them to take the easy money with the Yankees at the end of their career.”
“If you raise a player through your farm system, I think you’re hoping that they’re going to perform for you and you’re going to take care of them as a result.”
Netflix, with its big paydays to creators such as Rhimes and Murphy who defined traditional TV brands before leaping to the streaming giant, are the most Yankees-like of all networks or platforms. But others are increasingly upping their game in response. In recent months, Amazon Studios under new head Jennifer Salke has signed first-look deals with the likes of Jordan Peele and Nicole Kidman.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” creator and exec producer Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and business partner, Dan Palladino, also signed an overall deal with Amazon last year.
“This is the first job I’ve ever had where at some point I haven’t said, ‘I’ll just pay for that myself,’” Sherman-Palladino says. “My whole career has been about that. On [ABC Family’s] ‘Bunheads,’ I was like ‘I’ll just pay for the toe shoes.’ Now I have the freedom to not have to think about that and to also have a company that is so invested in the idea of what ‘Maisel’ is, and really wants us to fulfill it in a very, very big way.”
Writers are not the only ones benefiting from the demand of the moment. Performers have also increasingly become beneficiaries of high-profile producing deals such as Kidman’s at Amazon. “Ozark” and “Arrested Development” star Jason Bateman last month signed an overall agreement with Netflix.
“It’s a wonderful partnership because they’ve got great taste and the reputation of supporting the creative effort is fully well earned, and so far it’s been an absolute dream both in ‘Arrested,’ in ‘Ozark,’ in the nascent stages of this development effort with them,” Bateman says. “I hope to be there for a very long time.”
But business opportunities only prove truly lucrative when a producer’s vision lines up with his or her studio home. Having the opportunity to take swings that may be more likely to connect is a prime creative motivator for producers when choosing where to set up shop — one not disconnected from financial concerns.
“I’ve been on overall deals at different places, and sometimes you’re at a place where you keep banging against the sensibility,” says “Lodge 49” executive producer Peter Ocko, who is under an overall deal at AMC Studios. “There’s some places where the brand is so clearly defined that if you don’t like that, you’re not in the right place. But AMC is so wide open in that they seem to welcome ideas that are different.”
In the current competitive environment, such creative openness can be a big deal.