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Ownership vs. Quality

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Reversing a Trend Toward TV Networks’ Owning What They Air, New Schedules Show More Openness to Using Outside Suppliers
The broadcast networks and major studios are singing a different tune about vertical integration this year.
Hardball negotiating tactics and bad blood were replaced by collegiality as studio executives praised the broadcast networks for picking up shows based on merit vs. corporate interest.
“With the exception of the Warner Bros. [The WB Network], the other networks were much less focused on scheduling themselves,” said Gary Newman, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television. “You’ve seen fewer forced studio co-productions than in the past. Networks have not been strong-arming studios for ownership.”
Indeed, Warner Bros. received pickups from all six networks, including four sitcoms for UPN; Paramount has orders from all six networks; and 20th Century Fox will produce shows for five of the six networks next season.
Warner Bros. will have more shows on the air next year than any other studio with 28-15 new series and 13 returning series. Forty-five percent of the pilots produced by the studio were picked up for series. That’s up from 37 percent last year.
“The networks rushed pell mell into this idea of we’re going to make everything ourselves,” said Garry Hart, president of television production at Paramount “They start looking at the deficit payments-and as we all know most television shows don’t make it to the winner’s circle. People have gotten a lot more comfortable to say it’s not a bad idea to have shared risk or it’s not a bad idea to let them take the risk.”
Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth agreed that networks weren’t as stringent with ownership demands as in the past.
Over the past few years CBS has gained a reputation for demanding last-minute ownership stakes in a series before giving it a berth on the network’s schedule. CBS picked up two Warner Bros. sitcoms-Two and a Half Men and The Stones-but has an ownership position only in Men.
Conversations about ownership stakes this year were “much gentler and more exploratory than in previous years, in which it was presented as obligatory,” said David Kissinger, president of USA Television Production Group. “I do sense a more cautious attitude from all of the networks not to drive outside suppliers out of the business. They’re becoming more sensitive to the interdependency of the television community.”
ABC executives were high on two female-skewing dramas: Universal’s Karen Sisco and Partners, which was produced by sister studio Touchstone. The network ended up picking up Sisco and leaving Partners fighting for a midseason order.
“That’s a tribute to their creative instincts and not allowing corporate interests to dictate the choice,” Mr. Kissinger said. Studio executives also stressed the importance of returning series pickups.
Warner Bros.’ Mr. Roth said this year he’s most proud that six of the 13 returning series ordered from Warner Bros. by the network are sophomore shows. “If you look at the history of television you’ll find there is an 84 percent failure rate among all new shows,” he said. “Six of the 10 we introduced last year have been picked up for a second year. That’s the key to profitability.”
The studio also received an early two-year pickup on ER.
While Warner Bros.’ goal last year was to create a little more corporate synergy and develop quality projects for The WB Network, “Equally important for us was to produce for others,” Mr. Roth said.
The WB, which usually picks up more series from outside suppliers than anyone else, ordered all six of its new fall shows from sister company Warner Bros. The WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin said that was not the network’s goal going into the scheduling room. “I think this was the best schedule,” he said.
One reason, he said, is that The WB does a lot of internal development, and then needs a production partner to come in to make the show. In those cases, Warner Bros. is the logical choice unless another studio has specific talent or a showrunner to bring to the table.
“I feel very confident laying off development to Warner Bros. because in this landscape you want to know four or five years down the line there will be financial value to the show,” Mr. Levin said, noting that the network in the past has ordered pilots from companies like ATG that shut down.
The WB did order the midseason sitcom The Mayor from Sony and is considering additional midseason shows from outside suppliers.
20th Century Fox co-Presidents Mr. Newman and Dana Walden said this has been their most successful season. 20th received eight new series orders and has 13 series returning, but volume is not its standard of measure.
“We had mandates going into the development year,” Ms. Walden said. “One was to narrow our projects down to the ones that evoke the passion of people in our company.” The second was to develop projects that are viable internationally and in syndication, as well as good bets to land solid time periods. They were happy to see pickups for several bubble series, including ABC’s The Practice, Fox’s Boston Public and The WB’s Angel.