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Disney Television Studios Makes Splashy Debut at Upfronts

Upfronts week always revolves around big reveals and highly anticipated first looks. This year, one of the most talked-about contenders to emerge was not a show but a studio.

The newly minted Disney Television Studios made a splashy debut as three of the industry’s large production entities – 20th Century Fox Television, ABC Studios and Fox 21 Television Studios – have come together under one roof following Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox.

The mantra on the Century City and Burbank lots is collaboration and cross-pollination of talent. The three companies will continue to be run with autonomy as distinct labels under the Disney Television Studios umbrella. But there is a clear expectation that the labels will share resources and information as warranted to support the larger cause of feeding successful shows to Disney’s suite of platforms.

Executives at the DTS studios have spent the past few weeks on a whirlwind get-to-know-your-colleagues tour. There have been meetings and presentations galore – perhaps a few too many all at once, some have noted.

But the goal has been for the studio executives to get to know one another and for the company’s production engines to be aware of the programming needs of the various networks and platforms from Disney Plus to FX to Freeform to Nat Geo, from ABC News to ESPN to Disney Channel. Face time is important in part because 20th TV and Fox 21, still housed on the Fox lot, remain physically separate from ABC Studios’ outpost on Disney’s Burbank lot.

On May 14, the announcement that Disney has taken full operational control of Hulu added more wind to DTS’ sails as it clears the path for Disney to manage the growing streaming platform as it sees fit. The closer association with Hulu will greatly benefit FX Networks, which isn’t part of the Disney Plus family friendly streaming platform, as well as the studios geared toward producing adult-focused primetime fare.

Among the high-profile new offerings from DTS are NBC’s Bradley Whitford comedy “Perfect Harmony,” from 20th TV, and ABC’s Cobie Smulders drama “Stumptown,” from ABC Studios.

On May 13, as Team Disney assembled in New York for upfronts, a group of about 30 senior studio executives assembled at Benno restaurant in Chelsea for a mixer that left attendees energized. Dana Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment, reinforced the collaboration message to the crowd and detailed how she courted Warner Bros. alum Craig Hunegs for months to take the leadership role as DTS president.

Leadership of the three labels has remained intact, with Jonathan Davis and Howard Kurtzman running 20th TV as presidents, Patrick Moran heading ABC Studios as president and Bert Salke at the helm of Fox 21 as president. The fact that the studio leaders and many other executives know each other well from professional and social circles has also helped the integration process. Moran spent seven years as a development executive at 20th Century Fox TV before joining ABC Studios in 2010 – which gives him an invaluable level of familiarity with his counterparts.

“You can’t look at the combination of these two companies and not feel a lot of excitement about a great future ahead,” said Kurtzman.

In planning for the integration of Disney and 21st Century Fox, Walden and her boss, Disney Television chairman Peter Rice, determined that the creative process would be best served by maintaining multiple labels rather than creating one overarching studio. “The messaging has been consistent,” Moran said. “They felt it was better to have three labels to service all of the (production needs) rather than to try to do it all under one platform.”

An early example of the all-for-one attitude was the move of former “Star” showrunner Karin Gist, who has an overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV, to become co-showrunner with Kenya Barris of ABC’s upcoming comedy “Mixed-ish,” which hails from ABC Studios. The deal came together quickly at Barris’ instigation.

“A win is a win is a win for everybody,” said Davis. “When Patrick called us, we said ‘We love Karen. We love Kenya. This would be great.’ We want everyone involved with ‘Mixed-ish’ to succeed. It’s imperative that we all work together to get the right creatives to the right shows at the right place.”

Moran credited Hunegs with setting a tone from the start that a sincere spirit of esprit de corps was essential to fulfilling the expansive vision outlined by Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger in bringing together the formidable collection of TV-related assets through the Fox transaction.

“Craig’s done a good job of making sure we’re all connected,” Moran said. “If it feels like a win for one of us it should be a win for everybody. The realignment of the studios has not been tricky. We’re all still pursuing our own projects with our own creative partners because we all bring our own histories with our producers. But if you look at the total roster of talent it’s a pretty impressive list across the three studios.”

Salke noted that after the 18-month period of waiting for the Disney-Fox deal to close, there is renewed energy in the hallways, in part because the studios are seeing the promised additional resources to make deals, chase IP and court talent.

“This is an incredible universe that Disney has put together,” Salke said. “When you see it all put together, it makes incredible sense. Hulu was the final piece.”

The studio leaders say they are all under pressure to increase their output to feed Disney’s voracious appetite for content for Disney Plus, ABC, Freeform, FX and other outlets. At same time, the three banners all intend to continue fielding shows to non-Disney networks and platforms. Both 20th TV and ABC Studios have long balanced a directive to supply hits to internal networks with the desire to maintain a diverse portfolio of business all over town.

The marching orders are daunting, but the growth initiative has been backed by bigger budgets for the three banners.

“We have been handed a very large early Christmas present in terms of financial support to be able to build something pretty great,” Salke said.

Outside of Disney’s enlarged walls, there is concern among rival networks and studios about the market heft that Disney Television Studios will command. There’s also curiosity about whether Disney will be a big enough buyer and employer of creative talent to counter the inflationary effects of the eye-popping talent deals handed out in recent years by Netflix, Amazon and the nascent Apple streaming effort.

The trio of banners in Disney Television Studios closed out upfront week with 14 new broadcast series orders and 24 returning series. All told, DTS at present produces 69 series across 16 broadcast, cable and digital platforms. But even more important than a strong tally of new shows this year was demonstrating how the company aims to make DTS more than the sum of its parts.

“This was our first development season as a collective and our results already demonstrate the scope and power of our studios,” said Hunegs. “We are committed to making Disney Television Studios the best home for creative talent in our industry, and we’re enormously encouraged by these early returns.”

(Pictured: “Mixed-ish”)

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