It’s Not All In the Family

In-house still rules, but networks look outside their companies, too
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It was just a year ago that NBC became the last major broadcast network to marry a big Hollywood studio, buying Universal. Such deals, we assume, assure studios a ready buyer for shows they develop. For networks, having a studio sibling lets them control costs and locks in a piece of the upside if a show becomes a hit in syndication.

Something funny happened on the way to the complete vertical integration of the TV business: The market for TV shows opened up a little bit. Of the six new series NBC is adding to its schedule this year, just two come from NBC Universal Television Studio (affectionately known as “NUTS”). The remaining orders were spread across four rival producers. And of the shows NBC picked up from outsiders, none are co-productions in which the network jointly finances a series and participates in the profits. (Those co-production “partnerships” are often secured by a network’s strong-arming the producer: Think of Tony Soprano having an interest in the Bada Bing.)

As all broadcasters unveiled their slates for the upcoming fall season, other networks bought outside their corporate families, too. Disney’s Touchstone Television President Mark Pedowitz was celebrating orders from CBS for the first time in years. Warner Bros. Television scored across the board, getting new series on each of the six major networks (of course, that includes corporate sibling The WB network).

NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker sees a shift across the board at virtually all the networks. “The whole idea of vertical integration and complete reliance on your in-house studio was not the driving force in a lot of pickup decisions,” he says.

Needs of the Network

Part of the issue is the needs of the individual network. NBC is trying to rebuild its schedule following a slide from first place to fourth. So NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly especially needs to draw from the widest possible creative pool. At the same time, NBC’s slide means it has less leverage over producers.

But the major difference is that the terms of program deals are changing. For years, networks would lock in a price for the first four years of a deal; then, the studio could try to get more money. That’s why Warner Bros. Television was able to jack up the fee for ER to $12 million per episode (10 times the original fee) and increase Friends to $10 million. (ER has since come down in price.) “We’re getting longer deals now,” Zucker says. “They’re not four years; they’re six years or longer. That’s what co-productions are really about—protecting yourself years out.”

Even the former president of Touchstone Television didn’t always stay close to home. Steve McPherson was named president of Disney sibling ABC Entertainment in the middle of last year’s development season. “When I first took this job, people would worry that I would only buy Touchstone shows,” he says. “The minute you get this job, you become completely focused on getting the best shows.” Half of the new shows ABC ordered are from outsiders.

No one is saying there isn’t plenty of in-house dealing in the vertically integrated shops. All of UPN’s new series come from sibling Paramount Television, as do two-thirds of CBS’ rookie shows. Warner Bros. will supply three-quarters of the new series on The WB.

McPherson worries that, when the studio siblings of rival networks come knocking, he’s pitched only the castoffs. “As a development executive, it definitely makes it tougher,” he says. Sometimes you don’t get the best stuff from those places, you get second best.” He doesn’t cite any particular show or studio.

Warner Bros. is the biggest winner this season. The studio remains the leading supplier to broadcast networks, with a total of 32 new and returning series. Warner scored 11 slots on the fall schedules (just four of them on The WB). Those include sci-fi drama Invasion and sitcom Freddie, both on ABC, and splashy Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Pentagon hour E-Ring on NBC.

Warner Bros. Rules

Peter Roth is particularly tickled by his success ratio. Out of the 26 pilots Warner pitched this year, 58% were picked up either for fall or midseason. “Last year, we were 11 out of 32,” he says. “This year, we were more targeted specifically at the needs of individual networks.”

But the real king of prime time is a producer in Roth’s stable: Jerry Bruckheimer. Between existing hits like CSI and the pickup of three dramas and a midseason comedy, Bruckheimer could have 10 series on the air. He broke the old record set by Aaron Spelling, who supplied seven shows to ABC during his heyday in the early 1980s.

In second with 25 new and returning series was 20th Century Fox Television. That includes one of the series that’s got buzz, NBC’s oddball comedy My Name Is Earl, about a redneck petty thief’s attempt at redemption. It’s always hard to judge by the clips the networks show at their upfront presentations, but Earl is the pilot I most want to lay my hands on.

Among the smaller shops, Broadway Video Television scored two fall orders plus one likely midseason order; two of the projects are at NBC, the other at ABC. Headed by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, Broadway Video TV has become more serious about developing sitcoms.

Surveying what was picked up where, NBC Universal TV Division President JoAnn Alfano says she’s hopeful that vertical integration will not dominate what makes it into prime time. For her, it’s more a creative issue. “Sometimes, you know a writer whose voice would be better at another network, who might be better at Fox,” she says. “I think it’s a very good thing for the business.”

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