New CSI, NCIS, Marvel and DC Comics series suggest the US networks are sticking to the scripted dramas they know and do best this season. Jesse Whittock reports from LA
If the 2013-14 broadcast season tipped toward comedy, the pendulum has firmly swung back in the other direction this time around, perhaps because besides Fox’s Golden Globe-winning cop shop laugher Brooklyn Nine-Nine and ABC’s Sony-distributed autobiographical series The Goldbergs were the only two network comedies from last year to gain traction.
“This is one of the strongest drama line-ups we’ve had in years,” says Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros Worldwide Television Distribution of his 2014-15 vintage, echoing a sentiment from around most of the Hollywood studio lots this year.
Buyers at Warner Bros.’ Burbank base this May will find the studio shopping gritty CBS series Stalker; ABC’s supernatural/romantic-themed Forever and NBC’s Mysteries of Laura, a remake of a Spanish procedural. There is also DC Comics foursome Gotham (for Fox), Constantine (NBC), iZombie and The Flash (both The CW). Warner and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution both have 12 new shows, ahead than their rivals.
NBCUniversal International Television Distribution and Universal Networks International president Belinda Menendez agrees drama has take centre stage. She points to genre series, political and military thrillers, and event series as being among the key trends of her 2014-15 slate.
NBCU has the biggest new scripted slate overall this year, representing a major investment in content from the Comcast-owned group. Its network dramas include Israeli espionage format Allegiance, Heroes Reborn, The Slap, State of Affairs and Odyssey. Menendez says the Comcast-owned studio has “something for almost everyone”.
CBS Studios International, meanwhile, has a smaller, but equally noteworthy network selection (mainly due to the 12 returning shows on CBS). Among the headline titles are new CSI and NCIS spin-offs CSI: Cyber and NCIS: New Orleans; and Extant, which was ordered as a straight-to-series high-end summer show following the ratings success of summer miniseries Under the Dome last year.
CSI: Cyber is based on the work of Irish cyber crime psychologist Mary Aiken and stars Medium’s Patricia Arquette, while NCIS: New Orleans has Star Trek: Enterprise lead Scott Bakula in a starring role at the helm of a new forensics team. With other iterations of CSI and NCIS among the most-watched dramas around the world, CBS Global Distribution Group CEO and president Armando Nuñez questions: “How could I not be absolutely thrilled?” Buyers seeking franchise programming will share his enthusiasm.
Nuñez also points to bubbling interest in Halle Berry sci-fi drama Extant, which was greenlit early in the new season development cycle, as a “testament to the evolution of how the networks are viewing their programming as a year-round, as opposed to a seasonal, strategy”. He adds selling the concept to buyers has been much easier after Dome.
Familiarity, it seems, is the key this year. ABC has added another Shonda Rhimes series, How to Get Away with Murder, to its schedule, and placed it on Thursday nights alongside the hot creator’s other shows for the network, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Disney Media Distribution’s Catherine Powell, senior VP and general manager, EMEA, says Rhimes’ name gives the new series “the stamp of quality”.
HTGAWM stars Viola Davis as a law professor who, with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder case. “It’s a legal thriller with an overarching case, but it also has a procedural element with the aspect of lawyers being taught [each week],” says Powell. Rhimes is one ABC’s most valuable creative assets at the moment, and was recently tied into new four-year deal at the Burbank studio.
Another from the Disney-ABC camp this year is Marvel’s Agent Carter, which follows on from the much-buzzed-about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Though that series perhaps didn’t quite match up to the huge expectation, it rated well and has been renewed for ABC, and Carter will debut midseason after S.H.I.E.L.D. season two wraps.
Just as the acquisition of Marvel Entertainment is providing the Alphabet Network with a regular pipeline of comic book-themed TV programming, DC Comics is doing the same for Warner Bros., which this time round has gone four-for-four on its DC-originated pilots.
Gotham, Schlesinger says is “the show that everyone’s talking about, and is one of the best pilots we’ve made in the past ten years”. The show stars Benjamin McKenzie (The O.C., Southland) as a young Detective James Gordon. It explores the origin stories of classic Batman villains including The Riddler, Penguin, Poison Ivy and The Joker.
The biggest challenge, Schlesinger says, has been communicating that though the show is based in the Batman universe, it is not about superheroes “in costumes”. “Last year, there was some disappointment with S.H.I.E.L.D. because there was an expectation of seeing superheroes and what you got were humans,” he adds.
Schlesinger also points to Forever, a romantic drama series for ABC about a 200 year-old medical examiner who cannot die, as a potential sleeper hit. “It’s probably the biggest surprise of the year,” he says. “The lead character [played by Ioan Gruffudd] tested as high as Simon Baker did when we launched The Mentalist. Forever is a romantic drama with a relationship reminiscent of the characters in Bones and Castle, so for international clientele it is easily playable in primetime.
“It’s going to touch a cord in places like France and Germany, where they’re looking for a lighter, couples-type show.”
Sony Pictures Television rides into the Screenings on a wave of critical and commercial goodwill following success with NBC’s The Blacklist and AMC’s Breaking Bad finale. This is despite seeing its total networks pick-up number fall to two after a bumper 2013-14 total of eight.
Its top priority will be Battle Creek, a straight-to-series CBS procedural from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and House M.D.’s David Shore – a dream team of creatives by any measure. Keith LeGoy, president, international distribution at SPT says: “CBS has very few slots because they have a lot of successful shows, and each one of the those slots are incredibly valuable real estate on broadcast television, and they believe in what the guys were doing so much that they ordered the show straight to series.”
LeGoy says the show is “much more procedural than Breaking Bad”. It follows a fish-out-water FBI agent (Josh Duhamel) and a local detective (Dean Winters) who clash heads over their world views while solving cases in small-town America.
Fox, whose entertainment chairman Kevin O’Reilly earlier this year announced the death of the pilot season, has also focused on the straight-to-series model. Ancient Egypt-set adventure series Hieroglyph and Scandinavian-originated Backstrom both bypassed the pilots system, but Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution’s senior VP and managing director Steve Cornish says the changing model isn’t scaring off buyers.
“In fact,” he says, “they see it as a vote of confidence by the US networks in the series they have greenlit. Straight-to-series will give the buyers a fuller picture and the full breadth of the product that they are buying.”
Furthermore, the model “allows buyers to plan their schedules to fit around the US schedule, which is a good thing,” he adds.
Fox hasn’t exited the comedy pilots game, however, and Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution is selling ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Cristela, both loosely autobiographical shows themed around young ethnic minority people attempting to make their way in America.
Fresh Off the Boat is based on Eddie Huang’s memoirs of his Chinese family in suburban 1990s Orlando, while Cristela is a multi-cam comedy based on stand-up Cristela Alonzo’s experiences as an American Latina, straddling cultures and not fitting into either. “Both are very entertaining,” says Cornish.
Elsewhere on the comedy front, CBSSI is shopping The McCarthys and Sony is selling NBC’s Marry Me. McCarthys follows a stereotypical sports-mad Boston Irish family with a gay son, while Marry Me, which was one of Sony’s best-testing pilots, follows a young newly-engaged couple finding the pre-marriage period tough. “There hasn’t been a romantic comedy for some time,” says SPT’s LeGoy of the opportunity for the latter. “But family is a powerful theme at the moment – how do we relate to each other in 2014?”
Similarly, “a common theme we’ve seen amongst comedies this year is relationships,” says NBCU’s Menendez. “It seems that the humour isn’t necessarily pulled from the events that take place, but in the relationships the characters have.”
NBCU’s comedy slate includes Bad Judge, which stars Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) as a hard-living female judge and comes from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions; Mission Control, about gender politics during the 20th century space race, again from Gary Sanchez; Mr. Robinson, which stars Craig Robinson as a music teacher; Fox’s Mulaney, starring former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney as a fictionalised version of himself; and Tina Fey’s first effort after the ending of 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Other notable comedies on broadcaster schedules this year include CBS’s Odd Couple reboot, which stars Friends alum Matthew Perry and Tom Lennon (The State, Reno 911!). Note to fans of the 1970s ABC original: CBS boss Nuñez says the series plays closer to the 1968 Paramount movie that preceeded the TV series.
British buyers might be tempted by Galavant, a musical fairytale comedy debuting on ABC in midseason that Disney Media Distribution’s Powell describes as “Monty Python for a modern audience”, adding: “Buyers don’t seek out musicals as they are rare, and can be difficult in the same way as comedy, but Glee was a breakout hit and this has Disney storytelling and an irreverence and is so different.”
The series is being produced in the UK to tap into the territory’s new high-end drama tax credit system through Disney’s new Abbey C Studio.
Warner Bros. will offering single-cam comedy A to Z, which is set for NBC on Thursday nights and billed by Schlesinger as “a great romantic story that we’ve had great response to”.
The Warner Bros. chief notes most of the new season comedies are single-cams, popular in territories such as the UK, but admits he’d “walk over broken glass” for a multi-cam comedy akin to Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men or Friends”. Warner Bros. is offering one multi-cam contender, NBC’s One Big Happy, which comes from Ellen DeGeneres’s A Very Good Production and stars Elisha Cuthbert as a gay woman who decides to have a baby with her best friend, who in turn complicates things by marrying a free-spirited woman.
“One thing that is abundantly clear is multi-camera comedies are much more repeatable,” says Schlesinger. “Single cams might travel well on a one-off basis, but multi-cams work much better.”
Programming trends, viewer habits and buyers’ wishes remain relatively stable, it seems. What is changing, however, is who is commissioning and buying studio content. Though SPT is producing just three scripted shows for the networks this year (compared with eight in 2013-14), it has scored numerous renewals and cable pick-ups such as AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul and, significantly, big-budget productions for on-demand platforms.
Among Sony’s top-line projects is an unnamed KZK Productions one-hour drama for Netflix, billed as a “nuanced” psychological family drama. It also has Amazon originals The After, Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent. Elsewhere on the slate there is Starz’s Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s fantasy novels, and TBS half-hour comedy Your Family or Mine.
“From a market point of view, one of the really interesting things is the way we’ve begun working with the on-demand platforms,” says SPT’s LeGoy. “It’s reminiscent of when we started working with the cable platforms ten years ago as they became a serious platform for edgy, original, ground-breaking content.”
The impact isn’t simply limited to series orders – Netflix, Amazon and other on-demand platforms are now competing for first-run windows internationally, as these can be packaged up as premium and exclusive shows in local territories, Schlesinger says.
“There are a lot of pipes out there with a desperate need for content,” adds CBS’s Nuñez. “If the content is sold exclusively it becomes a pricing issue. The good news for us, the creators, is that there are more places to put it. Demand remains strong.”
Disney’s Powell says studio distributors are “used to” windowing deals for free and pay platforms, both linear and on-demand, and notes SVOD players often search for a “certain type” of serialised show – a Breaking Bad over a CSI as a random example.
Fox’s Cornish says: “It really comes down to the specifics of the deal and the windows that are available, and what makes good business sense to us.”
The message to buyers, whether linear or SVOD, free or pay TV: ready that chequebook and be willing to fight if you desperately want your killer new Hollywood series.