NBC targets family fare for Sundays

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Move over Shaq, Kobe and Air Jordan-make way for King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Leo the Lion.
Faced with the loss of its National Basketball Association broadcast rights next season, NBC is aiming to attack ABC’s early Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney” movie showcase with a pair of high-gloss dramas-
“Young Arthur” and “St. George’s Island”-that have started production in exotic locations.
“What Jeff [Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment] is really aiming for, with the loss of the NBA on NBC, is something that is younger-skewing but also all-family viewing that can be found on Sunday evenings,” said Ted Harbert, president of NBC Studios, which is producing both shows. “Frankly, we feel there is an opportunity against the Disney movies to lure some of the young-adult and family audiences away for well-produced family-adventure dramas.”
In particular, one leading Hollywood talent agency series packager, who requested anonymity, said that NBC’s programming brass is looking at “Young Arthur” as “something akin to `A Knight’s Tale’ meets [The WB’s] `Smallville,”’ in terms of trying to reach the persons 12 to 34 demographic.
“NBC is trying to capture in style and substance what Heath Ledger’s King Arthur means to `Knight’s Tale’ and what Tom Welling’s Clark Kent means to `Smallville’-they’re looking for a young, heroic hunk who can be a brand to the network,” said the agency source. “They’re going after The WB’s younger market, because they have research that says these kids, teens and young adults have greater influence over their parents’ buying decisions.”
NBC has been frequently criticized by media watchdogs for the past dozen years for its lack of family programming and its reliance instead on more adult-oriented sitcoms in the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. so-called “family hour.” The new commitment to family from Mr. Zucker and Mr. Harbert comes as NBC is prepping for its upfront advertiser sales presentation May 16 in New York.
For both executives, the two pilots have translated into NBC Studios serving as a catalyst to produce both “Young Arthur” and “St. George’s” in different economic and production models than what any domestic in-house network production unit and most major studios have been accustomed to in the past.
Production on “Young Arthur” began last week in Prague, Czech Republic, with the pilot pegged at the $2.4 million range. That startup budget is somewhat typical for hour-long drama pilots, but Mr. Harbert said if the show is picked up for the fall 2002 schedule, he expects the per-episode budget to be in the $1.1 million to $1.2 million range due to the production being overseas. He said it has not been determined yet if Prague will be the permanent location-Ireland, New Zealand and other Central European countries are still under consideration. Those territories typically offer U.S. studios advantageous exchange rates on the American dollar and other less expensive labor costs.
Deficit management
During the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Mr. Zucker and NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa entertained the notion of paying a license fee of as little as $500,000 per episode for an hour drama, which drew a chorus of skeptical remarks from network honchos such as CBS Television Network President and CEO Leslie Moonves and Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow. However, Mr. Harbert countered that the NBC programming chieftains were “greatly misinterpreted,” suggesting NBC could still be paying a $500,000 fee and carrying a similar deficit production figure but would have it covered through international sales.
Last month, NBC Enterprises, the network’s domestic distribution unit, did a multiyear output deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to handle international sales on select NBC Studios-produced or co-produced series properties. In return, MGM Worldwide Television Group can invest upfront money as a co-production partner to secure international sales rights to an NBC series property.
“No one is saying we are ever going to attempt to produce a drama in the $500,000 range, but a license fee could be paid in that range [by NBC] on a production budget around $1.1 million-meaning a studio partner would have to be brought in to help cover the remaining deficit,” Mr. Harbert said. “If we did a drama in Los Angeles, that deficit would be double-maybe in the $1 million range. Because we are looking to mount dramas with broad worldwide appeal, we’re looking at either a studio partner like MGM or someone else that can help cover deficits by making foreign sales of our series outside of the United States.”
To achieve that end, NBC Studios, along with veteran writer-producers Graham Yost and Remi Aubuchon (“From the Earth to the Moon”) have turned to noted Swedish film director-cinematographer Mikael Salomon (“Band of Brothers”) to helm the pilot production of “Young Arthur.” Much of the casting, which is being done in London, is taking on a decided international flavor, with little-known 19-year-old British actor Julian Morris cast to play the youthful Arthur, while 19-year-old American Paul Wasilewski is set to play his sidekick Sir Lancelot.
“This is going to be a show that so cleverly appeals to the mythology of `Merlin’ and the story of King Arthur, which is something the whole family is going to want to watch,” said Mr. Harbert, who recalled the ratings success of the “Merlin” miniseries that aired on NBC during the 1997-98 season.
New to the schedule
Similarly, Mr. Harbert has turned to longtime Teen NBC series producer Tommy Lynch (“Caitlin’s Way”) to realize a “personal vision” to shoot “St. George’s” as a family drama on location in South Africa’s wildlife game preserves. Mr. Lynch, who began production last week just outside of Johannesburg in the Brooker’s Farm wildlife reserve, said that the “multigenerational appeal” of “St. George’s” could make an “ideal” 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Sunday companion piece to “Arthur,” but he did not discount the challenge NBC could face against Fox’s top-rated, youth-oriented comedy lineup.
“Fox has `Futurama’ and `Family Guy’ in the opening hour, but I would be more concerned competing against `The Simpsons’ and `Malcolm in the Middle’ during the second hour,” Mr. Lynch said. “Thankfully, there are smarter people than me making those [scheduling] calls.”