The US broadcast networks are going big this year, with popular actors, producers and franchises anchoring new season schedules. Jesse Whittock talks with the studios as the LA Screenings get underway
The network series game is big business, and that’s why ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW have ramped up the stakes for the 2016/17 season. Many of the new dramas and comedies are toplined by major TV and film stars, as the channel chiefs bet big on star power.
Michael Weatherly, Matt LeBlanc, Katherine Heigl, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Kevin James, Jenna Elfman, Kiefer Sutherland, Hayley Atwell, Allison Tolman, Minnie Driver and Bill Paxton all star in new season shows, aiming to score better than the heap discarded at the end of the 2015/16 season.
“This year, we have more star-driven series, featuring top names synonymous with the comedy genre,” says Belinda Menedez, president, NBCUniversal International Distribution & Networks. “Created by Michael Schur, who also brought us Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place (top) stars Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, while Great News is from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock [30 Rock], and Marlon Wayans stars in Marlon.”
“Michael Weatherly is obviously, as a result of NCIS and evidenced by the huge ratings for his last episode, a global star,” says Armando Nuñez, CEO and president of CBS Corp.’s sales arm, CBS Global Distribution Group. “His role in this unique legal drama, which really looks into the psychology and process within juries and jury selection, is going to generate a huge amount of interest around the world.”
Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) stars in another of CBS Studios International’s major new dramas, Doubt. She plays a defence attorney who falls in love with a man who may have committed a brutal murder. “Just her presence alone will generate interest,” says Nunez.
The series is also notable for being the first example of a broadcast network show casting a transgender actor, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, as a series regular.
Another, ABC miniseries When We Rise (right), focuses squarely on LGBT themes, charting the rise of the community’s civil rights movement from its infancy through to the modern day, with Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) starring, Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) directing and Dustin Lance Black (Milk) writing.
“ABC in particular has a very proud record of supporting diversity and this is another manifestation of that,” says Mark Endemano, senior VP and general manager of Disney Media Distribution, EMEA. “It’s got great auspices, and it’ll be a really interesting show with big name talent.”
“When you get stars of the ilk of Kevin James and Jenna Elfman coming back to the networks that made them big stars in the first place, you’re going to see a lot of buzz,” says Keith Le Goy, president, international distribution, at Sony Pictures Television, in reference to CBS comedy Kevin Can Wait and ABC’s Imaginary Mary.
The former marks comic actor, movie star and stand-up James’ return to the Eye network – and to broadcast television – following his nine-year run starring in King of Queens between 1998 and 2007.
Kevin Can Wait was CBS’s first pick-up of the new season, reflecting its commitment to multi-cam comedy, a genre in which both Fox and ABC have no new efforts in this year.
“Everyone wanted Kevin, who is an icon of television and now a big movie star,” sayd Le Goy. “CBS made him a star and the reunion with them is an obvious and powerful one.”
The show follows James as a newly-retired New York cop and family man.
Imaginary Mary is Elfman’s latest network vehicle and return to ABC. Though she has appeared as a regular in NBC’s Growing Up Fisher and starred in CBS’s Accidentally On Purpose, she’s best known for ABC romcom Dharma & Greg. Her new show is about a child-phobic career woman whose imaginary childhood friend re-emerges after she moves in with her boyfriend and his kids.
Big name producers remain in vogue this season. Warner Bros. has again looked to Greg Berlanti, with the Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow and The Flash helmer overseeing production of The CW’s animated series Riverdale, which is based on characters from Archie Comics.
20th Century Fox Television Distribution, whose international president Marion Edwards describes the 2016/17 slate as “the biggest I can remember”, will be offering up Empire writer Lee Daniels’ latest effort, Star (left), which is about an emerging girl group. “It’s a combination of Dream Girls and Destiny’s Child,” says Edwards, adding it differs from Empire because “it’s more Beyonce than hip-hop”.
ABC, meanwhile, has once again leaned on the talents of Shonda Rhimes, commissioning Romeo and Juliet-inspired Still Star Crossed. “It’s another Shondaland show and it is a fascinating premise,” says DMD’s Endemano. “This goes back to 16th century Verona – it’s a period drama that picks up where Romeo and Juliet left off.”
Warner Bros. International Television Distribution was the one studio that declined to be interviewed, but will also be offering series that speak to the major development trends this season.
Training Day (right), Lethal Weapon and Frequency, for CBS, Fox and The CW respectively, began life as movies and have been adapted for television, following on from the likes of Rush Hour, Minority Report and Limitless (all since cancelled).
Time After Time, a mid-season drama based on Karl Alexander’s 1979 novel is one of a number of time travel-related series, while Powerless is a new take on a superhero show.
For CBS, the reboot trend sees it updating 1980s crime sleuth series MacGyver. “It was and is a very recognisable franchise around the world; one of the only shows from the 1980s that actually travelled well [globally] on the limited number of channels back then,” says Nuñez. “‘MacGyver’ has even become a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary.” (To ‘Macgyver’ is to make or repair an object in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand.)
Whether or not studios favour reboots because they are cheaper to develop or have in-built fan bases, “it’s not just about pulling an IP out of your library and doing it”, says Nuñez. “We managed it with success with Hawaii 5-0, but it’s tricky because you’re bringing something with brand recognition but not necessarily much awareness of the specifics.”
NBC is reworking Liam Neeson action trilogy Taken (left). “Series based on existing IP are beneficial for international buyers, as they have built-in brand awareness, which helps them stand out from the crowd, and with an existing fan base, these series are easier for our clients to promote,” says NBCU chief Menendez.
Time-travel series can be seen in several slates this year , with Time After Time joined by Fox’s Making History, and NBC handing its coveted 10pm Monday slot to the Sony Pictures Television-produced Timeless.
“Shows like 11/22/63 and our own Outlander cover the same dynamic, involving that huge curiosity within people that wonders what it would be like to live in a different time and place,” says Sony’s LeGoy. “You experience a different kind of life, you know more than the people living in that era and that’s a big curiosity.”
Making History follows two modern men who travel back to 1775 to ensure the American Revolution takes place after one inadvertently stops it. “It is a very different take on time travel: messing everything up and then having to go back and fix it,” says Fox’s Edwards.
On the superhero front, changes are afoot. Supergirl has been moved from CBS to The CW and ABC has axed Marvel’s Agent Carter and Marvel’s Most Wanted, the latter of which did not pass the pilot stage.
Warner’s Powerless, which is set for NBC, is a workplace comedy about the staff who clear up after the DC Universe superheroes. It follows Vanessa Hudgens as a claims adjuster for the likes of Wonder Woman and Aqua Man, working under a nightmare boss.
For international buyers, especially channels such as TF1 and RTL in Europe, a worry has been a lack of procedurals coming from the networks. Studio sales bosses say this season goes a long way to allaying those fears.
Sony’s Le Goy says The Blacklist: Redemption, which is a spin-off of NBC’s The Blacklist, plus Timeless and ABC’s Notorious (right), which has broken into the Alphabet network’s Thursday Shondaland block, are three that meet this demand. “This is a great response to that,” he says, adding they offer “the satisfaction of the weekly resolution and the deeper satisfaction of the mysteries resolving over longer storylines”.
Fox’s APB, meanwhile, is a “strong procedural drama” about a young internet billionaire who attempts to improve a police precinct using technology. “It’s very fast-paced with a case each week to solve,” says Edwards.
NBCU’s Menendez points to the fourth instalment of Dick Wolf’s Chicago… franchise, Chicago Justice, as another example. “Procedurals appeal to a broad audience and continue to perform very well internationally – especially top-quality series like those in the Chicago brand which come from a world-renowned producer and consistently garner impressive ratings,” she says.
Disney’s Endemano says there is a definite skew in favour of serialised series this season, but that the Mouse House has “always wanted the right balance for our EMEA clients”. He adds: “For them, procedurals in particular tend to play really, really well,” he adds. “Free-to-air broadcasters always want to get that mix of procedural, which ensures story of the week content, with the event, serialised dramas.”
NBCUniversal International Distribution & Networks president Belinda Menendez says buyers can find plenty of variety of her slate this year, much of which will be familiar in some fashion.
“A common theme we saw in this year’s slate was mining popular, established content and successful brands,” she says. “We have Taken, which is executive produced by Luc Besson and adapted from the hit films of the same name; Emerald City, the modern and dark re-imagining of the classic tale The Wizard of Oz; and the supernatural series Midnight, Texas (left), which is based on the popular novels by True Blood creator Charlaine Harris.”
Those three are high-concept, but on the more procedural side is Pure Genius, which stars Dermot Mulroney as a veteran surgeon who is tempted to join tech billionaire (Augustus Prew) at an ultra hi-tech Silicon Valley medical facility. “It comes from Jason Katims, who is best known for the critically-acclaimed series Parenthood and Friday Night Lights,” says Menendez.
8 new series 5 dramas 3 comedies
The 2016/17 season sees a smaller selection of new network shows from Disney Media Distribution than in previous years, in part down to a large number of returning series and in part down to ABC ordering shows from various studios.
“We’ve got the largest number of returning series from last year that I can remember,” says Mark Endemano, DMD’s senior VP and general manager, EMEA. “We’ve got twelve returning dramas and two comedies, which inevitably means fewer slots for new shows.”
One of those that did make it, Still Star-Crossed (left), is from the prolific Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch). Set in 16th century Verona, Italy, after the conclusion of the Romeo and Juliet story, it stars the likes of Grant Bowler (Defiance) and Gregg Chillin (Da Vinci’s Demons).
“The universal themes are going to be romance, intrigue and sexiness, which are the hallmarks of Shonda’s shows, but now in the context of a period drama,” Endemano says.
“Plus it’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so it’s timely.”
Other newcomers for ABC are American Housewife, which stars Katie Otto (Mike and Molly) as an mother of three who lives in a community of ‘perfect’ families in Westport, Connecticut; and When We Rise, a miniseries charting the history of the LGBT human rights campaign from the 1960s to the modern day. Milk’s Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black are attached as director and writer, respectively.
3 new series 2 dramas 1 comedy
Marion Edwards, international president at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, says this year’s slate at Fox is “the biggest I can remember in the 24 years I’ve been here”.
The 21st Century Fox-owned studio has some of the biggest name efforts on show this year in the shape of 24: Legacy and Prison Break, plus a TV adaptation of The Exorcist.
24: Legacy (left) stars Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) as a US war hero who has to stop a terrorist threat on American soil. “We always felt 24 was really strong IP, but could you have it without Kiefer Sutherland? I can now say for sure that, yes, you can,” says Edwards.
The new Prison Break, back after seven years, returns with all of its key cast, including Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell. “It’s probably the most anticipated show that is going to screen this year,” says Edwards. “It has exactly the same cast, it’s action-packed, beautifully-produced and an interesting new angle to a much loved franchise.”
The Exorcist, meanwhile, based on the 1971 novel of the same name, stars Geena Davis, and is “like watching the film”, says Edwards, who warns: “Don’t watch it in the dark! It’s very scary and moves like a movie.”
Also on the drama front are procedural APB, which follows a tech billionaire who takes over a Chicago police precinct; Pitch, which is the story of Major League Basball’s first female player; This is Us, an NBC series from the writers of Crazy, Stupid Love about a group of seemingly unconnected 36-year-olds; Lee Daniels’ (Empire) latest effort, Star; and Shots Fired, which Edwards says is as a “ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama with a twist”.
On the comedy front, Making History is a time-travel comedy; The Mick is a single-cam effort from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia scribes John and Dave Chernin; Speechless, which stars Minnie Driver as the straight-up mother of a disabled child and will air on ABC; and Son of Zorn, one of network television most off-the-wall new season efforts.
“It’s truly a unique show – a mix of live-action and animation,” says Edwards. “Zorn is an animated He-Man character living in Orange County trying to reconnect with his son after years away fighting. It’s very different, funny and original.”
12 new series 8 dramas 4 comedies
Sony Pictures Television is this year producing shows for ABC, CBS and NBC, which international distribution president Keith Le Goy says is “a strong package of programming for a lot of different networks”.
“Being an independent studio gives us the flexibility to go and make the leading drama for NBC in the prime Monday 10pm slot [Timeless], the biggest new comedy on CBS with the return of Kevin James [Kevin Can Wait], and Notorious, taking the 9pm slot on Thursdays on ABC, which is extraordinary,” he adds.
Notorious stars Daniel Sunjata and Piper Perabo and is inspired by the true-life stories of famed criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos and cable news producer Wendy Walker, who worked together to catch criminals and ratings.
“It’s glamorous, fast moving and people like to see that on broadcast television,” says LeGoy. “Not only that, but it has broken into Shondaland [the Thursday prime programming block] and that’s a testament to what ABC think about the potential.”
Timeless (left) will be another to watch. It has the 10pm slot, which last year was given to Blindspot, which has gone to a second season. Timeless’ production team comprises Sony and Davis Entertainment – as with The Blacklist and new season effort The Blacklist: Redemption, but this time with The Shield creator Shawn Ryan and Erik Kripke.
The show follows a historian, soldier and a physicist who travel back in time to stop an master criminal from changing America’s future.
“NBC thinks Timeless can do a couple of things: one, you’re looking at the most solid genre on television: crime fighting, but in a different context,” says LeGoy.
“The other thing is it combines the story of the week – or time travel of the week – with a richer experience as the exposition of the mystery and the characters unfolds.”
5 new series 3 dramas 2 comedies
“What people always love about CBS is for the most part a stability and broadness to the schedule and programming from the studio that is very appealing to the variety of clients we have around the world,” says Armando Nuñez, president of CBS Global Distribution Group.
The studio has buzzy dramas in the shape of MacGyver, Doubt and Bull for the CBS network, plus No Tomorrow, an adaptation of a Globo format from Brazil; and comedies Man with a Plan and The Great Indoors.
Man with a Plan (left) is notable as Matt LeBlanc’s reunion with CBS Corp.CEO and executive chairman Les Moonves gave the star his break-out role as Joey Tribbiani in Friends while running Warner Bros in the 1990s.
“Matt LeBlanc is very much associated with Joey, but he is a big star who carries a show,” said Nuñez.
The Great Indoors, meanwhile, follows Community star Joel McHale as a globe-trotting adventure-journalist who is given control of a newsroom full of Vice-style millennial-aged writers.
“Both comedies are somewhat similar in nature; big, old-fashioned sitcoms that are not trying to be too cute,” says Nuñez.
6 new series 4 dramas 2 comedies