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Touchstone about to leap to upper level of studios

May 13, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Touchstone Television, the in-house studio arm of ABC Entertainment Television Group, has become a key go-to player, with a record 26 pilots in development for next season.
At a time when all of five of the major network-studio combines are looking to pool most of their production with their sister networks, Touchstone is at the front of that list with 25 of its scripted series pilots parked at ABC. If ABC even picks up half of that pilot slate (accounting for 86 percent of the 29 total pilots in consideration at ABC) for next season, it could vault Touchstone into becoming one of the largest studio suppliers-next to the top-ranked studios of 20th Century Fox Television, Warner Bros. Television and CBS Productions/Paramount Network Television.
“Many of those suppliers, like ourselves, have their own networks to feed, so we do have our agendas in terms of feeding our own distribution pipelines-there’s no secret there,” said ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, who was charged more than two years ago with restarting Touchstone Television from scratch. “It’s like the oil business-you want to make sure you produce oil domestically and not rely solely on outside suppliers. We have got to make sure of that, and Touchstone is our domestic oil.”
The fact that ABC has turned so aggressively to Touchstone, which is headed by longtime ABC veteran Stephen McPherson, is a reflection of the network’s urgent need for fresh series.
“We have probably pushed the manpower as far as we can on pilots, but Touchstone’s staff, under Steve’s guidance, really did a great job in trying to address all of ABC’s needs,” Mr. Braun said. “There was no grand design to have Touchstone produce this many pilots-it’s just the way it played out. Given our need for product right now and given our need for A-level talent, there really was no alternative but to rely on Touchstone. They simply had the best product.”
The big question is whether Touchstone, which counts co-productions on seven of its 26 pilots, can afford to absorb additional deficit-financing pressures on big-budget sitcoms and dramas for next season.
While saying that Touchstone is open to taking on “financing partners,” Mr. McPherson also said Touchstone is still finding ways to mitigate some production costs by producing some of its current pilots as two-hour “backdoor” telefilm presentations. At least three of the ABC pilots-“Veritas,” “Nancy Drew” and “M.E.D.s” (also under the working title “Flashpoint”)-will eventually be broadcast in the network’s 7 p.m.-to-9 p.m. (ET) “Wonderful World of Disney” showcase or in a two-hour slot on another night.
“On a cost basis they’re somewhat more expensive to do,” Mr. McPherson said. “But the return on revenue from broadcast, cable and other ancillary markets can offer a better amortization of those costs and possibly mitigate any downside.”
Mr. McPherson is also steering Touchstone to become a reliable supplier to the competing network-studio combines-already counting “Scrubs” as a hit freshman player in NBC’s lineup this season. He has Touchstone in a co-production partnership on CBS’s “The Amazing Race” with CBS Productions and Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, and Touchstone is co-producing The WB’s “Maybe It’s Me” in association with Warner Bros. Television. During the ongoing development season, Touchstone has also entered a co-production arrangement with NBC Studios on the drama “Miss Miami,” currently being considered for NBC’s schedule.