Hearst, Fox Studios Work the Web

Apr 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Fox Television Studios and Hearst Magazines are joining forces to create series for broadband, and eventually network television, based on popular magazine titles.

The development deal includes two initial Web episode projects inspired by Cosmo Girl and Popular Mechanics.

The online series features an undetermined number of two- to three-minute episodes and will launch on the magazines’ Web sites. The companies also plan to pitch the content to Web portals such as Yahoo and AOL.

The Cosmo Girl project is a serialized soap, with fans contributing to the narrative by submitting suggestions for what happens next in the story. The Popular Mechanics webisode details have not yet been determined, nor has a timeline for launching either project.

The deal marks the first union between conglomerates Fox and Hearst, with the companies agreeing to a 50-50 split of any advertising revenue (see sidebar on Hearst’s television efforts). If successful, the partners hope to create further content for both broadband and network television.

“This is an innovative partnership that marries Fox TV Studios’ creative ideas with Hearst’s successful brands and content,” said Angela Shapiro-Mathes, president of FTVS.

The webisodes will be the first foray into the broadband arena for Fox Studios, which has long been known primarily for reality and documentary content.

The studio is having a banner year, with three new scripted series going on the air this spring and summer — “The Riches” on FX, “Burn Notice” on USA and “Saving Grace” on TNT — in addition to the return of “The Shield” on FX. In addition, its boutique company Regency Television has several pilots set up at broadcast networks for the fall, including the TV adaptation of the 2005 hit feature film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” for ABC.

“If you would have asked me six to eight months ago if I would have four scripted series on the air by summer, I would have never said yes,” Ms. Shapiro-Mathes said.

Brand New Bag

When Ms. Shapiro-Mathes took over FTVS three years ago, she was best known for her 18-month stint leading the then-struggling ABC Family Channel, until an executive reshuffle gave Anne Sweeney control of ABC’s cable networks in 2003. Rather than report to Ms. Sweeney, she quit.

Coming on board FTVS, she replaced David Grant, whose tenure included hit “The Shield” (2000), as well as “Malcolm in the Middle” (2000) and “The Bernie Mac Show” (2001) under the Regency TV banner (a joint venture between New Regency and FTVS). “Malcolm” in particular provided the studio with bountiful syndication profits, with the series selling for a reported $2 million per episode.

But by 2004, the studio was lacking any recent success stories. Moreover, News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch reportedly was frustrated with the number of FTVS shows going to non-Fox-owned channels.

Ms. Shapiro-Mathes described finding the studio a divided house. FTVS is the only studio at which domestic and international production are together under one roof, yet she found each division seemed to operate independently.

“People running scripted had nothing to do with people running alternative, while international was strictly focused on formats owned by Fox,” she said.

On the unscripted side, Ms. Shapiro-Mathes said the studio had 80 projects in development, a very large number for a small studio, which she strictly curtailed.

More significantly, she decided to ramp up development of scripted programming — an ambitious endeavor partly mandated by the changing marketplace. FTVS had regularly produced TV movies, but that market was quickly fading. Most importantly, Fox-owned FX was no longer buying the format.

The move required shifting development funds away from TV movies, as well as convincing News Corp. to increase the division’s budget. The tricky part: News Corp. already had one division producing scripted series, 20th Century Fox Television; there seemed little point in having two operations with the same focus. So FTVS had to find ways to make big scripted series for major networks without a heavy bottom line.

Deal by Deal

David Madden, executive VP of scripted programming at FTVS, said the studio’s strategy is to make individual deals with select writers rather than making costly development deals with major producers.

Though “The Shield” pre-dated both Mr. Madden and Ms. Shapiro-Mathes’ tenures with the company, the FX show was tapped as the model for future scripted efforts: modestly budgeted character-driven dramas from a talented showrunner. All of this year’s new scripted efforts fit the same mold.

“We don’t have seven-figure deals with pods,” Mr. Madden said. “We have a small fraction of the development of places like 20th and NBC Universal.”

Finding those writers meant making new inroads with the creative community. “No one used to really pitch ideas here,” Ms. Shapiro-Mathes said.

The problem was that agents, networks and creatives considered FTVS a place for unscripted programming. Some contacted by TelevisionWeek said they still do. But Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming for TBS and TNT, said the team has their attention. “Both Angela and David have a great eye for the bottom line and genuine passion for the programming,” he said.

CAA television packaging agent Michael Camacho, who has four deals set up at FTVS, said the studio has succeeded in improving its reputation, at least on the unscripted side.

“Their approach is 180 degrees different from the way it was before,” Mr. Camacho said. “Angela has relationships with producers, directors and executives. They understand the value of the unscripted marketplace.”

But with so much of FTVS’ new lineup on non-Fox networks, there’s a question of whether the current regime is once again spreading its products across too many competitors.

FTVS executives said News Corp. values having profits from a show remain in the family, but not at the expense of tossing aside potentially lucrative ideas just because they’re not right for Fox or FX.

This week, the FTVS team will seek to score two more credits when it begins shopping two projects from “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell, whom FTVS signed to a development deal last year. The studio is keeping quiet on the details, but Ms. Shapiro-Mathes is optimistic that this summer will be a watershed.

“This is a nice place to be in a comparatively short period of time,” she said.

Fox Television Studios

Established: 1997

Owns: Regency Television

Scripted series: “The Shield” (FX), “The Riches” (FX), “Burn Notice” (USA, premieres in June), “Saving Grace” (TNT, premieres in July).

Unscripted: “The Girls Next Door” (E!), “National Bingo Night” (ABC, premieres in May), “Talkshow With Spike Feresten” (Fox), “Crowned” (The CW, in production), “Dice Undisputed” (VH1)

Movies: “What If God Were the Sun” (Lifetime, premieres in May)

Pilots: “The Return of Jezebel James” (Fox, from Regency), “New Amsterdam” (Fox, from Regency), “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (ABC, from Regency)

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