Outsourcing the Fall Schedule - Broadcasting & Cable

Outsourcing the Fall Schedule

Independent producers pop champagne, in-house studios retrench
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Led by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which sold five new series, outside suppliers dramatically boosted their share of the broadcast networks' upcoming fall prime time schedules. The indies' gain left the networks' sister studios licking their wounds after a brutal development season.

In-house studios saw series orders decline to the lowest level in seven years, due partly to the loss of 4.5 hours a week in the merger of UPN and The WB into The CW. Poor development and CBS' and Fox's stable schedules also contributed, as in-house orders dropped from 70 shows covering 57.5 hours per week in 2005-06 to 50 series and 50 hours for the upcoming season.

Independent producers attribute their gains to having “fewer cooks in the kitchen,” as one puts it—more freedom and less input from studio execs—than in-house studios when it comes to developing series. Excluding co-productions, their fall tally will rise from eight shows constituting 10 hours per week in 2005 to 15 programs totaling 18 hours in 2006.

With 22 prime time hours a week to fill, ABC lifted its indie tally from four to 5.5 hours. Fox put three outside shows on its 15-hour schedule, versus just one last fall. NBC went from two to three, while CBS stayed at one.

POINTING FINGERS

Networks and their sister studios generally have strong relationships for much of the year, but during the two weeks leading up to the scheduling announcements, the networks go into lockdown mode. Veteran producers admit to feeling powerless around that time, when network execs no longer take their calls and the producers no longer seem to control their own destinies.

With in-house studios reeling, the finger-pointing has inevitably begun. It's not uncommon for ill will to surface between a network and its in-house studio after the schedule announcements. The studio expects preferential treatment and often will grouse when the network goes outside the family for shows. The chief of one such studio, said to be stunned after getting chided for a lackluster slate of pilots, turned the blame elsewhere, insinuating that the network president had frustrated the development process.

Network executives, for their part, say they're reluctant to commit to a show unless they're behind it 100%.

SPT SWITCHES GEARS

If the in-house studios are wondering how SPT hit a home run this season, the studio's change of fortune came from a change in strategy. Having been in retreat mode for years, SPT realized that, with cash cow King of Queens winding to a close next season (its 13-episode midseason order from CBS pushed the show into the rarefied 200-plus–episode territory), Sony would need to get more aggressive.

So it employed star talent like Brad Garrett in front of the camera and producer Darren Star and Adam Sandler's production company behind it, moves that allowed SPT to gain outright ownership of four of its five new series and control of digital rights. The goal, of course, is a lucrative syndication haul if one or two shows can succeed for four years.

“Our years of hard work finally paid off,” says SPT President Steve Mosko, “and now the goal is to make sure the shows stick.”

Having produced 11 pilots, SPT landed two dramas (NBC's Kidnapped and The CW's Runaway) and two comedies ('Til Death at Fox, Big Day at ABC) for fall and a midseason comedy, CBS' Rules of Engagement. Combined with Queens and two TBS comedies (My Boys and 10 Items or Less), it represented Sony's biggest haul in years—three times last year's volume—and series commitments at all five major broadcast networks.

WERNER'S GOOD YEAR

It was also a strong season for Tom Werner, the force behind long-running hits like The Cosby Show and That '70s Show. Only a year ago, he was lamenting the demise of the indie producer when he pulled the plug on network production at his Carsey-Werner outfit. With new production partners Eric Gold and Jimmy Miller, Werner landed two series orders this year: Twenty Good Years at NBC and Happy Hour at Fox.

It had been a difficult decade for Werner since the repeal of the Financial Interest and Syndication (Fin-Syn) Rules in 1995. The lifting of the government regulations gave the networks the right to own their programs outright and led to a dramatic increase in in-house production.

Doomsayers had predicted that, once “vertical integration” entered the Hollywood lexicon, networks would rely almost exclusively on their own production entities. Although Carsey-Werner and other once mighty independent providers like Witt-Thomas-Harris and Stephen J. Cannell were forced to close and SPT suffered through its own travails, outside suppliers prospered during reality TV's heyday. The networks introduced 13 reality series in the 2004-05 season, pushing the independents' total to 22 shows for 20.5 hours.

No new reality shows are yet scheduled for fall, making the turnaround for independent producers of scripted fare all the more dramatic. Still, some in the industry are doubtful that the indies' joyride will last. Studio executives, at both indies and corporate cousins, are bracing for in-house studios to come roaring back next year, and the networks themselves use phrases like the “ebb and flow” of the annual development cycles to explain this year's sudden shift.

During the recent upfront presentations, ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson, who used to run Touchstone TV, didn't give much credence to the indies' high success rate. “Everybody said that, when I took the job [at ABC], 'You want to get the best development from wherever you can get it, and you put the best show on the air,'” he said. “And however it balances out is the way it balances out.”

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