Touchstone throws its weight around fall skeds

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When Touchstone Television was folded into the ABC Television Entertainment Group nearly two years ago, the widespread perception among the Hollywood creative community was that the studio would confine its production of network TV series to ABC-effectively shutting the door to other network customers.
Last month’s upfront presentations in New York proved that is not the case. Four of the six broadcast networks bought series produced or co-produced by the Disney-owned studio.
“I understood the sentiment behind it, but I frankly never completely understood why people focused so much on us,” said Stephen McPherson, executive vice president of Touchstone Television.. “Maybe because the merger was more public than the other situations that previously existed, we got the attention. But it really is no different than Sandy Grushow [chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group] overseeing the network and studio, or at Warner Bros., where they oversee a studio, a broadcast network and cable networks. We live in a world where vertical integration is a reality, and we don’t make it any secret that we are going to mine that relationship to its fullest extent.”
ABC did have a big hand in Touchstone scoring the highest number of series orders in its 20-year history, placing five new series and three returning shows on the network for the fall season. Overall, Touchstone found itself vaulting from the fifth- to the third-largest supplier year to year, scoring a total of 13 series orders-nine new and four returning shows-for fall and orders for three other series with firm midseason launch dates. Among the traditional Hollywood studios, only 20th Century Fox Television, with 24 series orders, and Warner Bros., with 14, ranked higher.
Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of the ABC Television Entertainment Group along with Stuart Bloomberg, said Mr. McPherson was adamant about spreading the business beyond the sphere of Disney’s influence. “This is far and away the best year Touchstone has ever had,” Mr. Braun said. Not only did Touchstone supply great new shows to ABC, but they continue to aggressively supply other networks as well-not an easy task in this vertically integrated world.”
Embracing co-productions
The key difference with this season has been Touchstone’s open embrace of co-productions with other networks and studios. Touchstone entered a co-production deal with NBC Studios for the sitcom “Scrubs,” which is getting the coveted “Frasier” lead-out slot on Tuesdays. Other co-production deals include the NBC midseason comedy “What Are You Thinking” with Columbia TriStar Television, CBS reality show “The Amazing Race” with Jerry Bruckheimer Films and CBS Productions and The WB sitcom “Maybe I’m Adopted” with Warner Bros.
“I really subscribe to the belief that the networks and the executives who run them are in the business of putting on the best programming they can,” said Mr. McPherson, who denied that Touchstone made any kind of tradeoff to get NBC to give “Scrubs” its Tuesday time slot. “The fear we are not going to bring them [other networks] anything good or that we’re going to bring all of our stuff to ABC first, people just have to make that judgment, but it is simply not true.”
However, co-production deals haven’t always worked out for Touchstone. The studio was a co-production partner with Jerry Bruckheimer Films on CBS’s freshman hit “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” but balked on the project and let Alliance Atlantis and CBS Productions come in as production partners instead. Although Mr. McPherson
had been passionate about “CSI’s” prospects, Disney’s executive brass apparently nixed the “CSI” deal over what it thought would be limited international sales opportunities.
Ultimately, the decision to bow out meant Touchstone was cut out of “CSI’s” record $1.6 million-per-episode deal with The National Network (a Viacom property) for reruns valued at more than $160 million for the first 100 episodes.
Bruckheimer Films bolted just last week from its first-look production deal with Touchstone for a new development and production deal with Warner Bros. Television.
Jonathan Littman, executive vice president of TV for Bruckheimer Films, said, “There is no bitterness or acrimony [in ending the Touchstone production pact] … it’s just more of a case where we want to grow our TV business in other directions. Touchstone is in a very specific business [financing and distribution], but they have been completely supportive on `The Amazing Race’ and other development ventures in the past.”
Combining forces
The task of doing business with the other networks was all the more daunting two years ago, when Mr. McPherson tackled the integration of now-defunct ABC Productions, Walt Disney Television, Buena Vista TV Productions and Touchstone Television under the ABC Television Entertainment Group umbrella.
“The intent of the merger was to consolidate some of our work force to facilitate being in business with our sister network-but never to shut down on doing external business,” Mr. McPherson said. “We have ramped up our talent deals on a selective basis-and our development slate-with the intent on being a full-service studio to all of the broadcast network entities.”
Instead of emulating other major studios, Mr. McPherson has maintained a streamlined studio, which shies away from spending millions on a bevy of exclusive writer-producer deals. By contrast, in the mid-1990s, Fox spent $60 million-plus locking in big-name writers to long-term deals.
Mr. McPherson has sealed only a handful of major talent deals. Topping the list are three-year deals with the writing-producing team Nina Wass and Ted Stein, creators of ABC’s canceled “The Geena Davis Show” and NBC’s upcoming summer comedy “Go Fish,” and another with former “Friends” scribe Seth Kurland.
In some cases, Mr. McPherson has used Touchstone’s talent stable to hook a co-production partner, and he often hires out veteran show-runners on individual series deals, such as getting “Felicity” creator J.J. Abrams to helm ABC’s new spy drama “Alias,” or hiring veteran producers Rob Scheidlinger (“Sports Night”) and Oliver Goldstick (“Popular”) for ABC’s midseason Supreme Court drama “The Court.”
Mr. McPherson’s plans seem to be bearing fruit this season: Fall series “Alias,” “The Court” and “Bob Patterson,” starring Jason Alexander, have all generated decent buzz in focus groups and screenings with ad buyers, and ABC midseason series “My Wife and Kids” and “The Job” were both picked up for fall.
“Our production unit, our business affairs, our finance and our research people have really made this one of our best years,” Mr. McPherson said. “Out of change comes an incredible amount of unity, because people are forced to build new things. That is why we feel Touchstone is an upstart on some levels. We have been reshaped and refocused, where we have gone through an entire rebirth as a studio.”