WBTV’s Roth Faces Challenging’ Year

Top supplier focuses on long-term viability of shows

With more than 30 series on television this year, the studio that Warner Bros. TV President Peter Roth runs is hardly what one thinks of as an “independent.” But by not being vertically aligned with a major network, or existing to serve the purpose of any one net in particular, that is precisely what WBTV and alternative/cable unit Warner Horizon TV have become.

That leaves WBTV to sell to everybody. Or as Roth puts it: “To bring our product to the network that’s most appropriate, and is the best and most supportive place to air and promote it.”

With the broadcast upfront presentations of the networks’ new season schedules concluded, the WBTV/WHTV tally spoke for itself: The studio wound up with 26 series slated (14 returning, 12 new), and it is the only supplier doing business with every broadcast network—and at least two series on each.

The newcomers are: ABC’s Eastwick, Hank, The Forgotten, The Middle and V; CBS’s Miami Trauma and There Goes the Neighborhood; Fox’s Human Target and Past Life; and The CW’s Vampire Diaries, The Beautiful Life and Parental Discretion Advised (CW series are co-productions with CBS). WBTV also produces Chuck, which will be back on NBC after a fan campaign involving coordinated trips to sponsor Subway and, more important, a compromise on production costs.

Given all that, Roth has a view like no one else into how the recession, changing TV models and consumer habits have impacted the TV business this upfront season. He spoke to B&C’s Melissa Grego about producing for broadcast versus cable and how the climate has affected negotiations. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

How much more contentious and/or complicated have negotiations been this year relative to other years?

They’re complicated and, without question, contentious at times. But that’s not the point. These are very difficult and challenging times, and it’s important for us all to respond to the changing marketplace. That’s an imperative.

Nothing has happened this year that I don’t understand. It’s important for us to be good business partners to our network partners and producer partners, and always find the balance even when the process at times is challenging and difficult.

This season, it’s been very challenging. One network has five fewer hours of shelf space. The changing economic environment challenged every company. We are facing, most especially, the imperative to put on undeniable, can’t-miss, have-to-watch TV. It’s been a challenging year, perhaps more so than other years.

I feel satisfied at least in terms of having been given our opportunities, a chance to get on the air with product I really believe in. The real test will be how many of these can be true long-term hits.

For years you have acknowledged it’s not so much a volume game as profitable shows over not-profitable shows. How do you avoid that good problem of having more shows on the air than you maybe expected and having to finance them all?

Our ratios are the thing we’re most proud of. Two years ago, the ’07 slate of seven series produced three that stayed on-air. Last year we had five new series, and three are back—just five because of the strike. And Mentalist became the No. 1 new show in households. Fringe was the No. 1 new show in 18-49. This year we had 18 pilots, and 11 went to series. That’s a 61% ratio of success. That’s higher than most.

And again, it’s less about volume than percentage of success that we enjoy. It comes again with a simple statement of undeniable execution.

What, if anything, have you been applying to your broadcast business that you learned producing successful originals for cable?

We use the exact same methodology of thinking in the broadcast space as the cable space: great writing, great acting, great execution, ideas in the Zeitgeist. Then produce them in the most affordable ways possible.

Great content knows no bounds for budgets or distribution platforms. It doesn’t matter. Do we care about the characters, invest in what happens to them? Is it worth the viewer’s while? That’s what matters.

As [Turner Entertainment Networks President] Steve Koonin accurately said [at Turner’s upfront event], made-for-cable originals represent a tremendous growth area for TV, one we’ll be at the forefront of exploiting.

How has the drying up of the cash at stations affected your plans, if at all? Does it add pressure for you to get to profitability sooner in the life of a show?
The job of Warner Bros. TV is to manufacture the best, most undeniable product. When we do our job effectively, our colleagues know how to monetize it, whether it’s Jeffrey Schlesinger [who runs international] … to Ken Werner, who I think is the best syndication sales person in the business, to [Roth’s boss, Warner Bros. TV Group President] Bruce Rosenblum, who is as good an overseer as exists in TV. These guys know how to exploit the product.… When the product is great, undeniable, the consumer must have it, you make money.

Two of your freshman shows last year, The Mentalist on CBS and Fringe on Fox, went head to head on Tuesday nights. Next season they’ll both be on Thursdays, Fringe at 9 and The Mentalist at 10. What does that portend for these shows?
I have very high hopes for The Mentalist. I think it will do well at 10 on Thursday behind CSI. I welcome CSI as a partner. We see great growth opportunity, particularly with one less network competing in the time period and a clear alternative in Leno.

Fringe at 9 on Thursday is in a much tougher position. It’s a riskier move. Fox would acknowledge that. We believe in Fringe, JJ Abrams and his team are brilliant. The show is provocative, well-crafted, is growing, building, and I have high hopes it will be able to accomplish success for us and Fox. That said, it’s a far more challenging position with competition from The Office, Grey’s Anatomy—which is still an enormously popular show, particularly with women—and CSI with a broad, both male and female audience. There’s just not as much available audience. No matter how tough Tuesday may have been, we also had House and Idol. While Bones has done a terrific job, to really plant a flag for Fox at 8—it will be a less highly-rated lead-in for us.

Let’s look back for a moment. What are the big takeaways from last season?   
We better work harder and do better to be relevant and compelling for the public.

E-mail comments to melissa.grego@reedbusiness.com