WBTV’s Roth: ‘Nikita’ Big Part of The CW’s Future
With 26 Warner Bros. TV-produced series now slated to air on the broadcast networks next season, WBTV President Peter Roth says it is “another satisfying year” for the studio. WBTV is in business with all of the networks–with five new series on NBC’s schedule alone after being shut out of the network’s 10 p.m. hour last year by The Jay Leno Show.
WBTV’s unrivaled tally also means the studio boss continues to possess a singular view into primetime. He spoke with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about why Upfront Week 2010 has him optimistic about the broadcast business and why one new show on four-year-old The CW’s schedule is “very, very important to the future fate of the network.” An edited transcript follows.
There continues to be a lot of talk about fiscal responsibility, and rightfully so. But the development purse strings still look pretty loose. NBC is up 40% in development spending, which takes them up to Fox and CBS levels, still trailing ABC. Can the broadcast network model still support this level of spending?
The health and welfare of the network TV business is quite strong right now. This 40% increase you’re describing on NBC is a phenomenon that is directly attributable to what happened last year. The abdication of 10 o’clock for scripted television needed to be reversed. And it has been. And frankly the amount of program failure that they’ve had from years past also needed to be filled. That required an amount of spending that I’m surprised to hear is only a 40% increase.
They were aggressive, and that presented opportunities for our studio. We strategically targeted NBC way back in June. It was to our satisfaction and to our benefit that we are delivering them J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers, David E. Kelley’s Harry’s Law, Jerry Bruckheimer’s Chase, The Paul Reiser Show and School Pride from [WBTV division] Warner Horizon. Our target was their increased spending, and our commensurate spending has, I think, made sense.
As far as other networks are concerned what’s fairly obvious, what’s been consistently obvious for as long as I’ve been doing this, is: great, compelling programming wins out. Obviously, we are a very fiscally responsible company. We’re a company that looks at every single expenditure to make sure it’s as target specific and calculated as we can be. And then [we] try to strategically position our shows–the right shows for the right network, with the best time period opportunities–and then we attack. And there are some shows that require an additional amount spending, which are offset by the success that we enjoy internationally and on DVD sales, and our other revenue streams.
But it comes down to and will always be: The play’s the thing.
Should the networks be spending even more?
Here’s the answer: The broadcast business should know no bounds in terms of genre, opportunity and thinking. There are certain shows whose composition doesn’t require as large an investment, and there are certain shows and showrunners and creators that require a large investment. Because that’s the vision that they provide.
The decision you have to make is: Who do you want to be in business with, who do you believe in, what idea in your mind will really serve your network well? When you’re calculated and thoughtful about those decisions, that’s when the spending should happen.
When J.J. Abrams conceived of and then wrote speculatively Undercovers, we knew it was a big show that would require scope and scale, and, frankly, the vision that only J.J. could provide. That required a very large investment, and NBC stepped up as we expected them to and hoped that they would. I hope we will all look back a year from now and say retrospectively that was a smart investment.
Same thing with Jerry Bruckheimer and Chase; [exec producer] Jennifer Johnson had a vision that required scale and scope, and it’s shot entirely on location in Texas. In order to get the verisimilitude of a real experience of a U.S. Marshals Office, you had to feel you were in a real thriller, cat-and-mouse suspense show on the road. That requires an investment. NBC stepped up.
Our strategy, as you well know, is to be in business with the A-level top-notch best creator-showrunners in the business. They require investment. When it works, it works well, as it does with Chuck Lorre [creator of Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and new CBS series Mike and Molly)–that’s been a successful strategy and a great partnership.
But it’s also important to provide lower-cost fare to fill these massive primetime schedules, is it not? Like what you aim to do with Warner Horizon TV?
On the scripted side of Horizon, it’s a much more disciplined approach. But the creative composition remains same: Great writing, great acting, compelling story. In the case of Horizon, you do it for a price; in the case of Warner Bros. TV, you also do it for price but with a considerably larger economy of scale.
Let’s talk specifically about Upfront Week. Who got it right with the schedules? Is there a move you were particularly wowed by?
I’m impressed at some of everything from each of the networks I’ve seen so far. What I’m struck by is the extraordinarily aggressive approach to the fall schedule that CBS has taken. It is an unusually–and, one could argue, appropriately–very aggressive schedule; the most aggressive I’ve seen, I think, in the 11 years I’ve been at Warner Bros. One could argue that the No. 1 most watched network needed some changes, that their schedule was getting on the older side, so they made some very aggressive moves. I’m impressed by it. I’m very impressed by it.
Do you think it will pay off?
Time will tell. Considering that we’re supplying two of their new comedies, alongside one of boldest moves of them all–the move of Big Bang Theory to Thursdays at 8–I sure as hell hope so!
Is there one thing you can point to that you saw this week as the story of primetime in fall 2010?
I’m going to go network by network.
NBC’s story is that of NBC’s extraordinary investment they’re making in trying to return to the greatness of the once-proud Peacock network. I think they’re doing it right; I think they’re being very aggressive. I think they’re spending a lot of money, because you have to spend money to make money. And I applaud that effort.
Fox is a very, very strong network at this moment in time, and I believe their 4th quarter programming will be as strong as it was last year. There are a couple shows I have my eye on. I think the star of Lonestar looks quite compelling. They have a good schedule.
There is one show at ABC’s upfront that definitely caught my attention: No Ordinary Family, which I think looks quite good.
I went to the [Turner] upfront, which I thought was excellent.
As I said, the CBS schedule is very bold, very daring, very aggressive, and, frankly, very smart.
On The CW schedule, there’s one show in particular, and I will immodestly say that we produce it, called Nikita that I think is very, very important to the future fate of the network. That is because it expands the reach of the network. It’s not a typical 18-34 female-oriented show; it’s a show designed to expand the brand. It’s important that it succeeds not just for the company but for the network.
That and more comedies have been bought.
Comedy is undead!
It’s time for the pendulum to finally have swung back.
Do you think the schedules are pretty much done or will we see some reactionary scheduling?
There may be one or two changes, but I pretty much think you’re seeing the schedules the networks believe in and are going to stick with.
Fox and NBC completely back-burnered digital in their upfronts, but then ABC did hit it right up top of theirs. Where does that stand in the priority list right now? With things getting tougher in recent years, is there just a sense to get the TV product right and worry about all the digital stuff later?
Yes, I feel strongly that what you’re seeing after what has been about a five-year proposition of people scrambling toward making sure that they were at the forefront of this digital explosion of original content is: it’s the original play, it’s the show itself that drives all these other apps. When we do our jobs right, all of us, and deliver compelling, worthwhile programming, whether in half-hour or hour form, either in scripted or unscripted form, that’s the most important element of them all. How you monetize that, how you distribute that, the marketing or promotional platform is still the afterthought.
Forgive me, but I’ve been saying this for as long as I’ve been in a position of anyone being interested in having me quoted. I will go to my death bed saying this: No matter how television changes, no matter how people watch or consume content, content is what’s most critical. When the play is right, when the show is compelling, when it’s worth the viewers’ while, that’s when people make money.
I laugh every year that I do this when someone tries to stray from that basic and very difficult to accomplish formula. It is, of course, easy to say, not so easy to do.
So are you relieved that others are getting that the play’s the thing, not the digital bell or whistle?
I never presume to speak for the industry or anybody else. I can only speak for our company; this is our playbook, this is how we have done it as long as I’ve been there. And for as along as I will be there, we will be concentrating exclusively on the value of the storytelling, the writing, the performances.
Is that regardless of what your network clients might be asking you?
Clients want the same things we want, which are hits.
What do you anticipate will happen with regard to shows that did not get renewed, like your New Adventures of Old Christine on CBS, potentially moving to other networks?
Christine is a show that is very important and near and dear to our hearts. We will look at every possibility before throwing in the towel. That’s in our DNA also. We nevah, evah give up.
Anything else you won’t give up on?
We have to strike the right balance of economics that makes sense and justifies and warrants our continuation. I’m including the star of our show, the creator, the profit participants in that–we’re all partners. We’re going to look at it together and see if it makes sense, and obviously we’re going to see if another network is interested in making it make sense for us.