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Studio Chiefs Talk Series Orders, Digital Dealmaking and Diversification as Upfronts Wrap

A funny thing happened on the way to the upfront in a year of major transitions for the largest player in television.

Numerous network and studio executives found a dealmaking environment that was more collegial and collaborative than in the recent past. With so much of the traditional TV business in flux, there was a palpable feeling of competitors taking a long view and trying to find ways to fight through the storm together.

“There was a sense of resignation about the structural changes that took place this past year,” said Peter Roth, president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. TV Group.

The most seismic shift has been the union of Disney and 21st Century Fox and the immense TV content and distribution at the enlarged company. Consolidation and the move into streaming by Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and others promises to fundamentally change the economics of television programming. But even as TV giants are becoming more vertically integrated than ever, there’s appreciation for the importance of maintaining a portfolio of content produced for outside buyers as well as internal channels.

“Everybody’s now resolved to be at a particular place,” Roth said. “We are all talking about what it will look like for a non-affiliated studio to do business with another network. It’s challenging, but it’s not that hard to figure out.”

Warner Bros. TV emerged from upfront week with five new scripted series orders and two unscripted orders spread among CBS, Fox, CW and NBC. Among the high-profile offerings are CW’s “Batwoman,” the new Chuck Lorre comedy for CBS “Bob Hearts Abishola,” and drama “Prodigal Son” for Fox.

Studio leaders are caught up in the throes of the transition as the focus of profitability in television shifts from advertising-supported networks to the long-tail value of programs in a multiplatform environment. The play’s the thing, no matter what the screen.

“There was a fair amount of movement at the upper levels of these companies, so that was a backdrop against which everybody was operating,” said Lionsgate TV chairman Kevin Beggs. “You can’t really think about that day to day because you’re out pitching and selling and developing, but it’s in the back of your mind.”

Lionsgate has pulled back from the broadcast TV series hunt in recent years, but this time out it landed an order from NBC for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” an offbeat music-driven dramedy that Lionsgate sees as having sleeper potential.

“It felt like for a four-quadrant crowd pleaser, which is what broadcast is at its best,” Beggs said. “You want a broad-skewing, popular show with a very diverse audience.”

Sony Pictures Television came away with four new series orders — including ABC drama “For Life” and comedy “United We Fall” — and renewals for long-running franchises including NBC’s “The Blacklist,” ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and CBS’ “SWAT.” Those were important wins for the studio after a period of evaluating how it approaches the content marketplace.

“The way most studios have approached the business in the past is to aggressively pursue every potential script order and pilot order,” said SPT chairman Mike Hopkins. “What we tried to do was to be confident in the idea behind every show and whether or not it could be a really good broadcast show.”

Hollywood’s largest TV studios are all under pressure to step up output to feed ambitious streaming ventures. That made the discussion of digital rights — how they are parceled out between networks and producers — a more complicated topic in many cases. Even shows produced for broadcast networks are eyed as having crucial second windows on streaming or on demand platforms.

“Every year we look at digital rights, and each studio’s priority has changed,” said Howard Kurtzman, president of 20th Century Fox Television with Jonathan Davis. Long one of the industry’s largest suppliers, 20th TV is now under the Disney Television Studios umbrella with ABC Studios and Fox 21 Television Studios. All told, the Disney Television Studios banners emerged with 14 new scripted series orders from broadcasters.

“Each year it’s a little bit of recreating the wheel so it takes more time and thoughtfulness and effort,” Kurtzman said. He said he felt more of a sense of horse-trading this year even as network buyers push hard for expanded streaming access. But that expansion can go both ways. “Most of these digital rights agreements are reciprocal which helps,” Kurtzman said.

Diversification has been a key goal for CBS Television Studios for the past few years. The Eye’s production unit dominates the slate for its mothership network, but it is also producing for Showtime, Netflix and even the nascent Disney Plus streaming service.

“Our specific goals were to continue to broaden our base of where we sell, but also to have a diversity of our slate,” CBS Television Studios president David Stapf said.

The importance of distinctive material and strong production values at present can’t be overstated in the current Peak TV environment. With premium TV production budgets soaring, there’s no room for the B-plus show that used to be schedule filler. In an atmosphere where more and more viewers are seeking out shows via on-demand platforms, the work needs to be a cut above.

“We wanted to elevate the quality of character based procedurals and feel we achieved that in a big way with (new CBS dramas) ‘Evil’ and ‘Tommy’ and (CW’s) ‘Nancy Drew,’ “ Stapf said. “All three of these shows dive deep into interesting and complex characters while also having an engine that drives the procedural.”

Universal Television has similarly balanced a mandate to deliver for NBC with playing the wider field. This year, the studio “landed five shows on the NBC schedule and at least one show on three other broadcast networks,” said Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe. “I’d say we did pretty well.”

Universal’s new roster this year ranges from NBC’s “Bluff City Law” with Jimmy Smits to the Fox animated series “Duncanville,” from Amy Poehler.

The push to diversify is not only a focus at the studio level but also for writers and showrunners. As television moves away from the traditional focus on the 22-episode series airing from September-May, some are encouraging creators and showrunners to juggle multiple projects in a calendar year — something that used to be frowned upon. At the enlarged Disney, executives see multitasking as the key to harnessing the strength of the $71.3 billion merger that closed in March.

“We want our creators to do multiple things,” said 20th TV’s Davis. “You might have a show on Hulu for 10 episodes. You might have something on ABC and you might be developing something for FX. That’s what our calling card is now. The playground is just immense.”

(Pictured: Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising sales, shows off Disney’s array of brands at the May 14 upfront)

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