TV IN TRANSITION: Jonas navigates tough programming landscape

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Tony Jonas, the man who was once king of Warner Bros.’ TV business, looks out from his office overlooking the Warner back lot and chuckles as he surveys what he has wrought.
As an independent producer-Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” is his best-known property-he is faced with the reality of an increasingly tough environment in which to produce TV shows. And then it dawns on him: One of the people most responsible for changing the rules in Hollywood and making it tougher for independent producers is … Tony Jonas.
In 1998 it was Mr. Jonas-then president of Warner Bros. TV-who sealed a record-shattering $13 million-per-episode, $286 million-per-year licensing deal with NBC, allowing the Peacock Network to keep “ER.” It was a watershed event that led to unalterable evolutionary changes in the financial equation of producing and licensing TV shows to the broadcast networks.
“The idea of making that kind of killing that one could make with `ER’ or a handful of top-rated sitcoms over the last 10 years-those salad days are over,” Mr. Jonas said. “`ER’ was a phenomenon as a show, averaging a 46 share in households at the time, and unfortunately NBC was faced with `Seinfeld’ finishing its run and [NFL] football going to [CBS]. It was almost as if every star and planet came into the proper orbit, conspiring against NBC.”
The networks were horrified to realize that any of them could be held hostage to a show producer. “It was one of the pieces of business that set out all of these new formulas and business models in order to prevent anything like that happening again,” Mr. Jonas said.
Now sitting on the other side of the table as an independent producer and head of his own Tony Jonas Productions, Mr. Jonas has grown increasingly cognizant that the broadcast networks are wrestling with declining ratings and advertising revenues and are turning to repurposing prime-time series such as Fox’s “24” and ABC’s upcoming midseason drama “The Court” to aggregate viewers and commercial dollars. ABC’s deal on the upcoming “The Court” from Warner Bros. allows the network to get a second exhibition window on the newly acquired ABC Family Channel while the Disney-owned broadcast network pays a larger upfront license fee and puts up a “floating scale” guarantee to protect the back-end syndication value of the series.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I think that all independent producers and major studios are going to have to face that reality,” Mr. Jonas said. “[The repurposing deal for `The Court’] is a new model, a major model in altering how we do business. It is no longer on the horizon, it’s right here in our faces. And I think we’re all going to have to deal with it, especially when you are almost entirely dealing with these vertically integrated companies with multiple broadcast and cable network platforms.”
He also has no illusions about the broadcast networks holding the sledgehammer in series negotiations. Following the demise of the financial-syndication rules-which had basically kept the networks out of the series ownership business-Mr. Jonas said the networks were smart in demanding ownership positions but leaving the studios to carry the burden of pricey overall development deals with writers and producers.
“Actually, like Las Vegas, the leverage has always been with the house,” Mr. Jonas said. “The networks were smart after fin-syn in forcing the studios into co-production deals while they left them to carry all of that heavy tonnage of dollars in overall deals. Basically they left the studios and independents to carry the heavy weight, while all they are giving up is real estate on the network to pick up ownership. That all played a major factor in the tragic decision by Columbia TriStar to pull out of the network production business.”
The Warner Bros. difference
So Mr. Jonas has developed his own survival strategy.
“My experience has been that the best money that you can spend upfront is for script deals and somewhat less on talent holding deals, the latter of which [are] dependent on the level of acting talent involved in the project,” he said. “I would say my company being supported by Warner Bros. has made the difference between being in business or not, with significant writing-producing talent in this community.
Mr. Jonas joined the independent producing ranks in late 1999 by forging series output deals with the Viacom-owned premium cable network Showtime. At the time, he approached Showtime’s president of programming, Jerry Offsay, who worked with Mr. Jonas on a number of occasions as an ABC programming executive in the mid-’80s, to develop the multi-era “Leap Years” drama for Showtime.
Mr. Offsay also presented Mr. Jonas and his Warner Bros. partners with the opportunity to produce an Americanized adaptation of “Queer as Folk,” a groundbreaking British series originally produced by UK broadcaster Channel 4.
No-limits development
“We had worked together on `Leap Years,’ and I had known Tony for years as someone who had great relationships with writers,” Mr. Offsay said. “But it was also his great production connections [with Warner Bros.] and understanding of edgy subject matter that had me approach him on `Queer as Folk.’ Like a lot of development executives, he felt constrained by the creative straitjacket at the broadcast networks and having to pander to advertisers.”
The collaboration on “Queer as Folk,” one of the first weekly series to regularly explore gay lifestyles and relationships, translated to a show that Mr. Offsay said often scores triple Showtime’s prime-time ratings in its cable universe-in addition to getting plaudits from critics and a best drama trophy from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards last April.
“Tony had talked about doing a bold, no-limits television show and had been a passionate advocate from Day One,” Mr. Offsay added. “Without Tony, that show would not have been made, because the other studios had run scared before that. Tony’s passion had gotten Showtime and Warner Bros. together on this.”
“The experience at Showtime has been liberating in a lot of ways,” Mr. Jonas said. “Even when you think you have gone as far as you can, it’s great to have a network saying, `There is another 5 percent we can squeeze out in pushing the envelope.”’
That recognition has also opened a path for Mr. Jonas’ production company to tackle the development of as many as a dozen series projects for the broadcast networks next season. With a self-proclaimed affinity for “bring[ing] a new voice to certain topics that had been taboo,” Mr. Jonas is working on several projects for the broadcast networks that again look to push the envelope on certain social issues.
On the front burner in development for next season is the ABC sitcom “Stop Staring” (working title)-which Mr. Jonas is working on with veteran writer-producer Yvette Lee Bowser-about a family in which the parents are a black woman and a white man. Mr. Jonas said the collaboration with Ms. Bowser, who successfully developed Fox’s “Living Single” and The WB’s “For Your Love” during his rein at Warner Bros., brings to “Stop Staring” her own “real-life experiences” of being a child of a biracial couple. And Gary Owen, a white stand-up comedian attached to star in the project, is married to an African American woman.
“What we hope to say is that this is different but not as different as you think it might be-there is a universality to this family,” said Mr. Jonas, who will be bringing out one of the few sitcoms since CBS’s “The Jeffersons” in the mid-’70s to have a biracial couple among its characters. “This is certainly a show that is going to be socially conscious, but it is also not being designed as a preachy show about how race relations should be in their community.”
Capitol intrigue
Politics is not too taboo for Mr. Jonas’ production company to tackle. He has teamed with Mark Wilding, a writer who has worked on such Warner Bros.-produced series as NBC’s “The West Wing” and “Jesse,” to work on the Washington-base
d comedy “Interns,” which is in development at UPN.
“I don’t think any of us want to get into the territory of the Monica Lewinsky world, but that is not to say there aren’t any greater temptations when it comes to power and sensuality, between what happens in Washington, Hollywood and other cities around the world,” Mr. Jonas said. “We are hoping to present idealistic and realistic worlds of Washington, and that collision of both is [what] we hope will help this show break out.”
Mr. Jonas is working with writer-producer Matt Dearborn on a somewhat more conventional family comedy, the CBS project “Principal Dad.” The difference here is that Mr. Jonas is positioning “Principal Dad” as a single-camera comedy (with no laugh track) focusing on a school principal who bears down harder on his son than other students at the school.
“The idea in trying to sell the show [to CBS] is that when fathers become coaches to their sons or daughters, they’re often most difficult and judging of their own offspring-it’s a very interesting dynamic there,” Mr. Jonas said. “So the idea was to look at a real-life situation, although we are doing it in a high-concept world.”