ABC ready to shop outside Disney store

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A year from now, ABC could be in a position to fill many more of its available prime-time slots with programming from sources outside the Disney family.
The foundation has been laid for the Mouse House to throw open its doors via pre-conditioned cable repurposing and extended licensing agreements with major studios that previously had felt shut out at ABC because Disney management had pressed ABC programmers to aim for in-house ownership of its entire lineup.
The widely reported repurposing and extended-licensing agreement ABC made with Warner Bros. Television for “The Court,” which recently came and went after only three episodes, has been the key.
ABC has negotiated similar deals with outside studios that have four pilots in contention for slots on the 2002-03 schedule that will be presented to advertisers May 14 in New York. But Disney-owned Touchstone Television, whose hits this year include “My Wife and Kids” and “Alias” on ABC and “Scrubs” on NBC,” is involved in 25 (or 86 percent) of the 29 pilots in contention for fall at its sister Alphabet network, so observers are not expecting to see the door flung wide before midseason at ABC.
More important, ABC has had discussions with the major studios in Hollywood and has come to unwritten understandings with each that “Court”-like agreements-with perhaps as many as four runs on ABC and ABC Family Channel allowed and six or seven years on the first licensing cycle-are the way to get back into business with ABC.
Most notably, one Hollywood studio executive, who requested anonymity, said that ABC is believed to have offered “blanket agreements” on extended front-end license terms (six to seven years) and multiple episodic runs (four or more exposures) between multiplexed runs on the broadcast and cable networks.
However, unlike the model put forward on “The Court” deal, ABC is not necessarily offering “guaranteed,” sliding-scale license fees for an outside-studio-produced show to take a back-end run on any of the Disney-owned cable networks. That lack of a guarantee could still have some outside studio supplier reticent to make “blanket” repurposing deals, given that the additional front-end exposures (on ABC and another cable network) will more than likely diminish the value of future back-end broadcast or cable syndication sales.
“When it came to the back-end, [ABC] did not say they were going to definitely offer a cable back-end guarantee,” said the studio production source. “What if the show does not even work in the [front-end] repurposed window on cable? I just don’t know if they’re interested in guaranteeing the back-end on something they’re burning off in the front-end with repurposing. The upshot is that they are offering some extra money for the added front-end runs, but are not making much of any guarantees on the back-end. From anyone’s point of view at the studios, is it enough to make up for our front-end production deficits as well as the potential decline in value for our back-end to put up with repurposing?”
Still, another high-ranking studio source described the template, crafted by Mark Pedowitz, the ABC Television Entertainment Group executive VP who manages business affairs, as “brilliant.”
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and Disney President Bob Iger “were pretty out there in saying, `We want to produce 100 percent of the schedule,”’ a stance widely second-guessed as imposing creative limits and dooming ABC, which has extensive lineup problems, to heavy deficit funding.
“This allows them to share in the rewards without owning their entire schedule,” said the studio source. “This gives them the business solution so they can move toward to the creative solution.”
New ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne has said publicly she has been actively letting the creative community know that ABC wants to be in business with a wider assortment of suppliers.
Competitors and potential suppliers see these moves as a shift in the direction of the wind at Disney and ABC, but Mr. Pedowitz disagrees.
“I think it’s a shift in the direction of the community perception,” he said. “We’ve always been open, and we continue to be open, and we need to be open, and hopefully we are altering a perception in the community.”
Still, outsiders say the mindset at ABC and Disney now makes it less likely that another “CSI” would slip through their fingers because of the companies’ unwillingness to cover the upfront costs alone or to partner with someone outside the family.
It’s no secret that after Disney’s Buena Vista dropped out, CBS Productions found a more adventurous partner in Alliance Atlantis and that “CSI” has turned into a monster hit (a second rerun recently ranked as the most-watched show of the week) and has produced a much-anticipated spinoff series for next season.
It also has become a cautionary tale for these vertically integrated times.
“You don’t impose synergy on people,” said a network executive. “You sit down and ask, `How can we help each other.”’
In the halls of studios in Hollywood, the feeling is that ABC once again is positioned to do just that with as many studios as possible without creating tension in the family.