The arrival of television’s annual upfront derby spurs a marathon of dealmaking in the days leading up to the major networks’ fall schedule presentations. This year, the mood among network and studio executives rushing to close talent deals and finalize license fees is described by one veteran as “tense but cordial.”
Leadership at each of the Big Four networks and their parent organizations has changed dramatically since the last time the networks put on their upfront finery in May 2018.
The challenges facing the old-guard broadcast networks are manifest and urgent, starting with the 2018-2019 season ratings tally logging another year of precipitous declines across the broadcast landscape in live viewership in key demographics. The networks are embracing the idea of new long-tail metrics to determine the true value of shows, but their businesses are still built to thrive on the live mass audience aggregation of yesteryear.
“Everybody realizes it’s a transitional year,” said one senior executive. “People are being actually cordial to one another because we all realize (broadcast TV) has to be reinvented if we want to continue in this business.”
As George Cheeks, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, put it Sunday while touting the lack of major scheduling changes in the Peacock’s 2019-2020 plan: “While our network may be stable, our industry most definitely is not.” NBCUniversal kicks off a week of mega-watt TV presentations on Monday with its company-wide content showcase at Radio City Music Hall.
Adding to the sense of unease is the standoff between talent agents and the Writers Guild of America that erupted last month. There is no question that many agents, particularly high-level reps, are still aggressively attending to the business of top clients under deals that predate the WGA’s break with talent agencies on April 12.
But overall industry sources say the level of hard-core agenting in the last lap of pilot season has been noticeably lighter this year. There’s been less last-minute lobbying for the meat and potatoes of primetime TV such as sophomore season renewals or development pacts for writers coming off of canceled shows.
Most of the key deals for core showrunners and writers on the new series orders were hammered out during the pickup process, so the impact on series dealmaking post-April 12 hasn’t been felt as strongly as it will in the coming months as development for 2020 steps up.
Sources say there has been heightened communication during the pilot selection process this year among rival network executives. Top network execs have taken a hard look at the development of rivals, especially those projects passed on. The sibling studios at each of the Big Four networks have all made a point to sell projects to outside buyers in recent years, so senior managers who are otherwise rivals have natural occasions to have conversations about shows being bought or sold by a competing network’s studio. To wit, ABC on Saturday bought back the drama pilot “Emergence” that ABC Studios produced for NBC after NBC passed on giving it a series order.
“We couldn’t find a home for it on NBC,” NBC Entertainment co-chairman Paul Telegdy told reporters Sunday. “We’re delighted it’s found a future at ABC.”
Industry sources also report that another tricky source of series dealmaking talks have been in the digital rights arena. Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and CBS Corp. are all in the midst of launching, or building out in CBS’ case, direct-to-consumer streaming platforms that will command worldwide linear and digital rights to content.
Those conversations about valuation for expanded episode stacking rights, and other provisions, have been spirited. It’s understood that Disney/ABC has introduced a new template for digital rights terms in its contracts this year. Sources said a back-and-forth on that with Sony Pictures TV held up ever so briefly the formal renewals of the studio’s sitcoms “The Goldbergs” and “Schooled” and new prison drama “For Life.”
Beyond the nitty-gritty of deal terms and rights valuations, industry veterans say the biggest challenge at present remains the introduction in recent years of “crazy money” into the creative community. The broadcast networks are struggling mightily to deal with the inflationary effect of having Netflix, Amazon, Apple and to a lesser extent Hulu barrel into the content marketplace with big checkbooks and fat balance sheets. In a world where Netflix hands out $20 million checks for comedy specials, the expectations from talent for compensation have turned “hair-curling,” in the words of one Big Four executive.
“I have heard requests come out of people’s mouths for money that you would not believe,” said another Big Four network leader.