LA Screenings: Broadcast Strikes Back

With US cable series such as Hatfields & McCoys gaining traction with key demographics in the past year, broadcast networks have reacted with new comedies, reboots and spin offs and a shift toward short-run series for the new season. Jesse Whittock looks at how this will affect buyers at the LA Screenings.


The Crazy Ones

Laughter, it’s often said, is the best medicine. US broadcast networks have taken a battering in recent times with declining ratings compounded by video on-demand platforms determined to get in on the original content action and boisterous cable channels scoring hits. Indeed, earlier this month, A+E’s president of sales Mel Berning claimed spending ad dollars with a broadcaster was tantamount to paying a “failure tax” for underperforming programmes.

Perhaps that’s why comedy is at the top of all six studios’ distribution slates this year. The shift toward comic series was evident last year and the trend continues as buyers converge on the studio lots in this week.

“Since [ABC’s] Modern Family there’s been a feeling that there’s more opportunity with comedy. Internationally, if you have the right comedies you can really break through,” says NBCUniversal International Television Distribution’s executive VP, sales liason, Don McGregor. “This year for us is really exciting because we have a lot of broad comedies. Shows like 30 Rock and The Office have been very successful for us but they weren’t the broadest comedies out there.”

“There’s definitely been a return to comedy in recent years,” adds Sony Pictures Television’s president, international distribution, Keith le Goy. “We have got four, and that’s more than at any time in the past five years. Each network is putting it at centrepiece of its schedule.”

SPT hits the market with NBC half-hour sitcoms Welcome to the Family and The Michael J. Fox Show; Adam Goldberg-penned ABC comedy The Goldbergs; and Fox’s single cam remake of modern classic BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey, Us & Them, which comes from SPT, BBC Worldwide Productions and Baby Cow Productions. The latter series follows a couple from different parts of the US that meet on a blind date and fall in love. “Love is a universal theme,” le Goy says of the concept. “It’s got the best of Bridesmaids-style slapstick humour in a half-hour form and is a great mix of heartfelt fun and riotous comedy.”

Warner Bros. International Television Distribution president Jeffrey Schlesinger claims his studio will hit buyers with the most “undeniable” potential hit of the season in Mom, which comes from perennial hit maker Chuck Lorre. “It’s a fantastic concept, a great multi-camera comedy with ‘hit’ written all over it,” he says.

Elsewhere, CBS Studios International’s president and CEO Armando Nuñez will be shopping We Are Men and The Millers, which CBS is hoping will take over the baton from ratings-grabber How I Met Your Mother when it winds down after its ninth and final season. “Comedy is all about execution and we have a great track record in that space. We Are Men has the producers from How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men behind it, so it has pedigree,” says Nuñez.

But Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution president Marion Edwards, who heads into the Screenings with four network comedies including Robin Williams-starring CBS single cam workplace series The Crazy Ones, warns that while comedies “can be incredibly valuable in after-network markets such as syndication, cable and OTT… this is the exception, not the rule”. Furthermore: “It is very difficult, although not impossible, for them to find success in access primetime on major networks,” she adds.

But while this year’s slate of comedies is fairly traditional, there is signs cable rating smashes such as Hatfields & McCoys, Vikings and The Bible have influenced network drama output. Certainly there are more limited run series such as Fox’s Jack Bauer reboot 24: Live Another Day and director M. Night Shyamalan and FX Productions’ 10 or 12-part thriller Wayward Pines than in previous years.

“The extraordinary performance of these types of [cable] shows on television in the US is behind the re-emergence of interest in getting back into this business; and the ability to make ‘noisy’ content that is highly promotable helps to brand the network that airs it,” says Edwards.

“There are things cable and Netflix are doing that attract business and attention and in some ways influence what goes on broadcast television because they influence the audiences they’re trying to reach,” adds SPT’s le Goy.

ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee has also recently spoken of a desire to run shorter, unbroken series. “The success of [last season hit] Scandal is an example of how this strategy has worked,” says Disney Media Distirbution’s senior VP and general manager, Catherine Powell.

Despite that, CBS’s Nunez says: “[CBS CEO] Les Moonves talks about the fact we are a ‘broad’-caster. There are some brilliant cable shows around and about but they can be quite niche and you probably cannot place that kind of content on a broadcaster anywhere in the world at 8pm or 9pm.”

But there are further indicators of cable’s influence in series such as DMD’s Resurrection, which follows events in a town where the dead begin to come back to life. The concept (and title) touches on religious themes currently popular, thanks in part to The Bible’s success on A+E-owned cable chanel History.

Powell, however, says the series represents a different canon. “We have always had series across the networks whose stories are based on mythology: Lost and The Ghost Whisperer, for example. Any form of mythology, whether religious or otherwise, provides a rich fabric of story telling and mystery that keeps viewers connected often on a very emotional level,” she says.

DMD has a range of new dramas this year, most of which are produced by ABC Studios for the ABC network. As Warner Bros.’s Schlesinger notes, “The one thing we’re seeing is continuing vertical integration”.

The buzziest show at market, if pre-Screenings chatter is to be believed, comes from the DMD slate. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the long anticipated Marvel Universe superhero TV spin off series that The Walt Disney Company has been touting since spending US$4.2 billion on Marvel Entertainment in 2009. “The timing for S.H.I.E.L.D is perfect,” says Powell.

The series is one of a number of spin offs launching this year. DMD has Once Upon a Time cousin Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, while NBCUniversal International Television Distribution has Chicago PD, which is spun out of Chicago Fire – itself a new addition to the NBC slate last year.

Of the latter, NBCUI’s McGregor says: “It broadens the Chicago Fire format by going into a police department and looking at everything, including dirty cops. It explores another side of Chicago.”

Ironside, meanwhile, takes its inspiration from the NBC cop drama of the same name that ran on the network between 1967 and 1975. The new version stars Blair Underwood (The Event) as a brilliant tough guy cop who’s forced to sleuth from a wheelchair after being shot and paralysed while on duty.

“It’s a take on the earlier NBC show but it’s not a remake, and Blair Underwood has done a great job in what is a new role for him. The character is dealing with his demons and challenges but is a genius detective, which is similar to Hugh Laurie’s character in House,” says McGregor.

The Originals, a new CW series from Warner Bros. Television, CBS Television Studios and Alloy Entertainment, is directly spun out of successful teen drama The Vampire Diaries. “What could be better than coming out of a show like that?” says Warner Bros.’ Schlesinger, who will be shopping the show in LA.

Along with heritage dramas and spin offs, a trend for high concept projects remains. “There seems to be a lot of high concept stuff this year,” confirms Schlesinger. Warner Bros. offering from the genre is new Jerry Bruckheimer-produced political thriller series Hostages, while SPT will be in town with NBC drama The Blacklist.

Both shows have generated plenty of pre-market buyer buzz and SPT’s le Goy claims the latter, which is about a criminal mastermind (James Spader) who gives himself up to the FBI and offers to give everyone he has ever worked with on the proviso he only talks to a seemingly unconnected rookie female profiler (Megan Boone), could be a mainstay on NBC over the next five or ten years. “We know that they think it could be massive,” he says.

Along with their new slates, the studios will also be welcoming new buyers. CBS’s Nunez estimates that between 1,400 and 1,500 will attend the CBS screening – with many coming from the SVOD space in the shape of established players such as Netflix, LoveFilm and Hulu, but increasingly from local digital players too. “The client universe certainly has expanded,” he says.

But with debates raging over the impact of VOD players’ pushes into original content and first-run window rights, Nunez admits, “You have to take a step back [when it comes to these negotiations]”.

“We carefully look at how distribute our content so we don’t cannibalise it. It’s not anything that’s revolutionary, though,” he adds.

“There is an issue there,” confirms Warner Bros.’ Schlesinger. “Would Sky want to run a show that’s gone out first on Netflix? Further to that, would Netflix demand exclusive subscription rights? Maybe they would only want the series to go out on terrestrial TV. Then what happens?”

No doubt, buyers and sellers at the Screenings will be doing their upmost trying to answer that very question this week.

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