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Nets keep it in the family

May 20, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Vertically integrated network and studio combines again dominate the prime-time landscape for the 2002-03 season, but there is an independent studio rising to the occasion.
The comeback crown belongs to the newly integrated Universal Television, which doubled its series orders for fall 2002 through a combination of new-series orders and the remarriage of Barry Diller’s former Studios USA Television production unit.
“As much as it has been a very gratifying experience, it has been somewhat of a grueling, tiring process in working out our network deals-not just in the co-productions but in everything else on licensing terms,” said Sarah Timberman, president of programming for Universal Television. “At least for us, the end result was very gratifying, even in cases where we made co-production deals … we made deals that made sense for us.”
For Ms. Timberman, being tired at the end of network upfront presentations in New York last week was a good thing. That’s because Universal came out of the upfronts having doubled its output number from five series to selling 10 television series for 2002-03 season. That tally also included a midseason 13-episode order from ABC for Dick Wolf’s revival of “Dragnet,” slated for 9 p.m. (ET) Monday, after “Monday Night Football” concludes its run in December.
Before the network upfronts last week, some contractual points of “Dragnet’s” sale to ABC had not been entirely fleshed out. ABC, which has been making progress in extracting secondary cables windows for its recently acquired ABC Family Channel, apparently relented on that provision in order to secure Mr. Wolf’s show. Because Universal, through its previous life under USA Networks, still owns USA Network on cable, Ms. Timberman’s network team was able to negotiate a delayed eight- to 10-day cable window for “Dragnet” on USA Network.
“ABC had negotiated hard on that [ABC Family], but they also appreciated the role and place Dick Wolf has within Universal,” Ms. Timberman said. “We were ultimately able to secure a second window on USA Network, which was a significant aspect of the negotiation that we’re very pleased to have worked out in mutually beneficial terms with ABC.”
The USA Network connection is a template that Universal (and Studios USA) has successfully established as a precedent with NBC on Mr. Wolf’s highly-rated series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which have shared cable windows on USA. By using the Wolf-USA Network hook as leverage, Universal has not had to consider abandoning the network development business as Columbia TriStar Television, another nonaligned Hollywood studio, did.
“Our situation is very different from Sony’s, and it gives us dramatically different priorities, because Columbia TriStar has no network affiliations whatsoever,” Ms. Timberman said. “The fact all of the other independents of our size folded this year [including Michael Ovitz’s Artists Television Group] ultimately created greater opportunity for us because we are the only major suppliers who can freely program for a broadcast network and any of our cable networks.”
While it is part of a vertical media conglomerate, Warner Bros. Television, typically an independent-minded negotiator when dealing with The WB in the past, stepped up to the plate with its sister network for next season. Under the guidance of WBTV President Peter Roth, the studio agreed to broadcast multiplays for hit returning dramas “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville” in addition to the highly-touted drama project “Everwood.”
The deal to allow first- and second-season repeat runs of “Gilmore Girls”-to be billed “Gilmore Beginnings”-to air at 7 p.m. Sunday nights is in marked contrast to Warner Bros. TV’s previous stance against repurposed cable runs of its shows on sister-owned Turner Broadcasting System cable networks TNT and TBS. The newfound mood of largesse from WBTV also applied to The WB’s 5 p.m.-to-7 p.m. Sunday replay scheme for “Smallville” and “Everwood.”
While declining to comment on previous speculation that The WB is agreeing to pay $50,000 or more for each additional exposure of the three dramas, Mr. Roth would only say that it was a “fair, equitable deal for both sides.” But then again, the money does eventually go into the same corporate pockets.
“With `Smallville’ being early into its lifecycle and on a huge growth curve and `Everwood’ being an entirely new product, we think Sunday afternoon is a great place to get additional female adult sampling,” said Mr. Roth, whose studio came in second in total fall 2002 series orders (18 shows, up from 14 last year) to fourth-year leader 20th Century Fox Television (19 shows, down from 24 pickups in fall 2001).
At Fox Entertainment Group, a shift in corporate perspective on cable repurposing may be under way. While gratified to hear that real-time drama “24” is getting a second-season renewal from Fox, the word from corporate and studio executives is that the Kiefer Sutherland-led show will not be getting a second window on sister cable network FX next season.
Going into the second half of “24’s” current season, FX shuffled the show in and out of late-night and early morning time periods, moves that were said to have created a brief rift between Fox network and studio executives. Originally, FX had set “24” in the 11 p.m.-to-midnight Sunday and Monday time slots to build viewer interest and exposure for the show’s original Tuesday broadcast on Fox.
“[`24′] will not be repurposed on a going-forward basis on FX, but it was very helpful on a first-year basis because of the kind of revenue we were able to recoup on a big-budget drama like this,” said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television. “Certainly, it was not duplicative viewership [from FX’s run], and it brought us new eyeballs, but this is something that may really be beneficial to first-year shows in need of initial sampling and increased exposure.”
Fox’s order of 20th Century Fox’s Joss Whedon-produced “Firefly” has the studio thinking of cable networks other than FX for next season. `”Firefly’ is a good candidate for repurposing, but I don’t know if it will work on FX, and we could be looking at other cable options,” said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television.
Since networks such as CBS and Fox have ownership stakes and sister studios accounting for roughly 75 percent of their prime-time schedules coming under the same corporate banners, it was inevitable those corporate ties would lead to confrontations during the development process. In one case, CBS’s demands over creative control and ownership rights had the Fox Television Studios boutique production unit also sending a statement about how it is going to do business.
Shortly before the upfronts, Fox Television Studios’ independent “pod” unit Regency Television, which is a joint partnership between Fox and Arnon Milchan’s Regency Pictures, pulled out of its co-production partnership for the midseason CBS drama “Queens Supreme,” which stars Oliver Platt and is being co-produced by Julia Roberts’ Shoelace Productions. According to David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, CBS wanted to boost the production budget and downplay certain “creative elements” that would have also accentuated the courtroom drama’s appeal in foreign broadcast markets.
“We liked the show creatively and were very passionate about it,” said Mr. Grant, adding, “But at a certain point the cost of the show just kept escalating, and we felt the world markets were not strong enough to support our participation in it. Les [Moonves, president of CBS Television Network] and Nancy Tellem [president of CBS Entertainment] are really good at finding out what works creatively for CBS, but we felt we just had to step away from it.”
On the other hand, Mr. Grant successfully navigated Regency Television through the upfronts with the pickup of Fox drama “John Doe” and entered international production pod Fox World into an innovative series deal with the now NBC-owned Telemundo
Network to produce a Spanish-language version of “Temptation Island.”
“We’ve proved that you can spend a bit more on quality shows like `John Doe,’ but we have to be conscious of making sure we have the creative elements coming together to make the show have appeal in the broader international marketplace,” Mr. Grant said.#