Networks Back Off Back-Ends

May 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The networks are more concerned with getting the best product on their air than with participating in the back-ends of the series they greenlight, according to indications during the upfront presentations last week.

This network perspective was refreshing to more than a few studio executives, some of whom fought during development season to fend off deals that would make their projects co-productions with the studio arms of certain networks.

“This year there was an openness to networks buying shows and giving them high-profile time periods based on what the best shows were, instead of what came from sister companies,” said Gary Newman, co-president with Dana Walden of 20th Century Fox Television, which had 16 hours of television picked up last week. Mr. Newman offered the example of 20th’s single-camera half-hour “My Name is Earl,” the only new comedy NBC picked up for fall.

“It’s a positive sign companies are willing to do business with each other,” he said. “That’s positive for everyone.”

That’s not to say vertical integration is no longer a factor in clearing prime time. The vast majority of new pickups came from production companies owned by or in partnership with the big media conglomerates.

The big studios aligned with major networks know who their most important client is, said Mark Pedowitz, president of Touchstone Television, the sister studio for ABC.

“We’re very clear upfront with people with what we do,” Mr. Pedowitz said. “We understand we’re a vertically integrated company, ABC will get first dibs on anything we develop.”

But if projects don’t work for ABC, Mr. Pedowitz said, he is welcome to take ideas elsewhere. After ABC passed on two projects, Touchstone ended up selling them elsewhere: NBC bought “Inconceivable” and CBS ordered “Criminal Minds.”

“We went out and sold [them],” Mr. Pedowitz said. “It works to everyone’s advantage.”

Selling to an outside network isn’t always based on creative fit. Sometimes it’s done out of necessity.

Although Paramount Network Television produced pilots only for its sister networks CBS and UPN this development season, the lack of needs in-house makes it easier to sell product to networks not owned by Paramount parent company Viacom, said David Stapf, the studio’s president.

“CBS has a pretty strong schedule, a successful schedule, where there’s not a lot of opportunity,” Mr. Stapf said. “There are other opportunities at other networks.”

Paramount’s most recent hit for an outside network is NBC’s “Medium,” which will return for its second season this fall.

Warner Bros. Television and 20th Century Fox Television, traditionally the two biggest suppliers of prime-time series, both said they are also sticking with the strategy of developing specific, successful pilots as opposed to producing with an eye toward volume.

Still, for the third consecutive year, Warner Bros. Television is the top prime-time broadcast supplier, with projects at all six networks. The studio received 15 new pickups for next season along with its 17 returning series.

“It’s the same as last year. Our intent was to be more targeted,” Warner Bros. TV President Peter Roth said.

Gone are the days when studios developed several projects for one network knowing that most of them didn’t have any chance of making it on a fall schedule. The strategy now is to look at network needs and time-period needs to figure out what has the best chance of selling.

“We scrutinize every project and every financial decision, and that’s all in response to a changing business,” Mr. Roth said.

20th Century Fox Television followed the same playbook from last season, said 20th’s Ms. Walden. She said the company “made decisions about development in a very strategic way, a more focused way, [and was] less concerned with volume.”

She also said the strategy has worked, with 20th Century Fox TV getting 13 pilots picked up for next season and 13 series returning from the current season, many in what she called “premium time periods” on a variety of networks.

Size Matters

But anyone who thinks networks are so desperate for new programming that smaller, independent production companies can make it without being aligned with a major studio is sadly mistaken.

Broadway Video Television, which is aligned with NBC Universal Television Studio, is “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels’ development company. This year the company had comedy series picked up at NBC and ABC, and it will shoot another pilot starring “SNL’s” Tina Fey later this year.

But without the backing of NBC Universal, the company’s JoAnn Alfano said, Broadway Video probably would not have been so successful this season.

“It’s very, very difficult for a small company to not be aligned,” said Ms. Alfano, president of Broadway Video’s television unit. “Having the studio support has made a tremendous difference for us; having them as a creative and financial partner. Doing it without them, I certainly wouldn’t want to try.”

The small size of Regency Television, which is half-owned by News Corp., puts it at a disadvantage because “big companies have the leverage and bigger deals,” said Robin Schwartz, Regency president. The company, which sold a drama to Fox for the fall, has to be “scrappier,” she said.

On the other hand, Regency’s size gives the company the ability to focus on a relatively small number of pilots without relying on a large bureaucracy. For Ms. Schwartz, the selling points become uniqueness and quality.

“We do so much less volume,” she said. “The thing that you have to fight with is a great show that they want.”

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