LA Screenings 2015: Puppet masters

The-MuppetsMuppets, medics and movie characters will be filling US network schedules over the next year. Jesse Whittock examines the trends, and what this means for buyers at the LA Screenings

Over the next US broadcast season, audiences will finally learn the backstory of the Muppets. They will also be introduced to the latest contenders vying to become ‘the new ER’, and television versions of the Rush Hour, Uncle Buck, Limitless and Minority Report movies.

The 2015-16 broadcast schedules look like a mix of the familiar – medical dramas are back in vogue, new procedurals abound, and thrillers and the usual half-hour multi-cam family comedies are all there – alongside some high-concept efforts thrown in, as cable sensibilities filter through and the networks look for the next (unexpected) hit.

ABC, perhaps spurred on by the success of Monty Python-esque Galavant, counts The Muppets as a big play this time round. The show, which brings America’s most popular puppet comedians back together after a two-year broadcast network absence, comes from The Big Bang Theory’s Bill Prady and 3rd Rock From the Sun’s Bob Kushell.

But where the Muppets once performed in variety shows and entertainment segments, the 2015-16 vintage will be a more grown-up affair. Mark Endemano, Disney Media Distribution’s senior VP and general manager, EMEA, tells TBI that The Muppets will still be a family-viewing series, but there will be a ‘mockumentary’ tone found in the likes of The American Office and Parks and Recreation.

“It’s not often you get the chance to take something with such heritage and modernise it for today,” says Endemano. “Think of Modern Family and how they made that with a mockumentary style with classic dual-level humour.”

DMD’s other comedies are David Windsor and Casey Johnson’s multi-cam family effort for ABC, The Real O’Neals, about a perfect family that is rocked to the foundations when son Kenny reveals he is gay; and Grandfathered for Fox, which stars John Stamos as a playboy who finds out he not only has a son, but also a grandchild. The latter is just the third for another network in ABC Studios’ history.

The Fox network, eager to find new comedies, has ordered animated comedy Bordertown, which is from Seth MacFarlane and his fellow Family Guy writer Mark Hentemann; The Guide to Surviving Life, a young ensemble piece about people in their twenties; and horror-comedy Scream Queens, which is from Twentieth Century Fox Television, Ryan Murphy Prods and Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision.

Grinder-EpPilot_Pilot-Sc22_00953There is also Rob Lowe sitcom The Grinder (left), which Fox is coproducing with former employee Gail Berman’s production firm The Jackal Group. It sees the West Wing actor playing a TV lawyer who decides to become the real thing after moving back to the family town when his popular show ends.

Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution has all four on its slate, along with CBS effort Life in Pieces, an Aaron Kaplan effort that has been handed a post-Big Bang Theory Monday night slot from November.

“Everyone is looking at trying to portray family,” says Marion Edwards, president, international television, Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. “Modern Family was a very big success, and people are looking to find the next really human family. This shares some of the sensibilities. Often in comedy you find people being extreme, but there is enough humour in real life.”

CBS and writer Tad Quill are working on single-cam comedy Angel From Hell, which stars Jane Lynch and Maggie Lawson. The show is centred around the larger-than-life Amy (Lynch) who enters Allison (Lawson)’s life claiming to be her guardian angel. The pair form an unlikely friendship, though Allison is unable to ascertain if her new pal is for real or just crazy. CBS Studios International is on-hand to sell the show internationally.

CBS is at the forefront of another ongoing trend this season – ordering TV adaptations of movies. It has taken Bradley Cooper action flick Limitless and comedy franchise Rush Hour to series. Cooper executive produces the former and will appear. CBSSI will sell the show, which follows a man who is coerced into working with the FBI due to his use of brain-boosting drugs.

Rush Hour, meanwhile, follows a similar set-up to the original movies, in which Jackie Chan played a by-the-book Hong Kong cop paired with a cocky African-American LAPD cop (Chris Tucker). In the Warner Bros. Television-produced and distributed reboot, little-known actors Jon Foo and Justin Hines play the leads.

There are also reboots of Uncle Buck (for ABC) and Minority Report (for Fox). The former, from ABC Studios and Universal TV and sold by DMD, sees Mike  Epps step into the iconic John Candy role from the 1989 comedy.

Minority Report is from Amblin TV, Paramount TV and Twentieth Century Fox TV, with the latter’s sales arm attached to distribute. It is set 11 years after the 2002 released neo-noir in 2065, and follows a man who can see the future and a female cop, who race to stop terrible crimes.

Also on the high-concept front is the buzzy Blindspot, which has landed the coveted post-Voice Monday night 10pm slot on NBC. The show, which Warner Bros. is selling internationally, begins with the discovery of a woman in the middle of Times Square who has no memory, but is covered in tattoos that are clues to a criminal conspiracy.

It’s not all so high-concept, however, and medical dramas have made a big return this season after an intense development period at all of the studios in recent years. “People are always fascinated by medical drama,” says NBCUniversal International Television Distribution and Universal Networks International, Belinda Menendez.

NBCU’s efforts this year are CBS’s Chicago Med, the latest from Dick Wolf’s Chicago procedural franchise, and Universal TV-produced NBC series Heartbreaker, which stars Melissa George as a quirky-but-brilliant heart surgeon, and is based on the life of Dr. Kathy Magliato’s book Heart Matters.

Menendez says the need to find the ‘new ER’ is growing as ABC stalwart Grey’s Anatomy nears the end of its natural lifecycle. “We’ve got a real opportunity with Heartbreaker,” she adds.

Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution also has a new medical, in the shape of Rosewood, which follows a brilliant private pathologist with a secret, who helps the Miami PD solve cases through intensely thorough autopsies. Disney also has CBS’s Code Black, which is set in a notoriously busy emergency room.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Screenings without new crime procedurals, and Disney-sold CBS series Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders and Warner’s Fox network effort Lucifer are two examples. Superhero shows, meanwhile, include Warner’s Supergirl for CBS.

CBS also has another summer event series in the shape of James Patterson series Zoo. Nor would it be the Screenings without a Shonda Rhimes show, this year’s offering is ABC’s The Catch, about a fraud investigator.


CBS sets no Limits and opens Zoo


With a settled and super successful programming grid in place, CBS’s new season presentation was notable for the twenty-plus number of recurring shows (and the end of the original CSI), as well as for the roster of seven new series.

Three of the new offerings will be shopped by CBS Studios International.

Relativity’s hit movie Limitless gets a TV outing with the film’s star, Bradley Cooper, among the stellar list of exec producers, and also making an on-screen appearance.

It follows Brian Finch, played by Jake McDorman (American Sniper), as he is coerced into helping the FBI after discovering the extraordinary effects of a mysterious brain-boosting drug called NZT. CBS has given the show a plum spot in its schedules, making it the nearest you can get to a sure thing in US network TV.

“The international market is clamouring for procedurals and they are working increasingly well,” says Armando Nuñez, president and CEO, CBS Global Distribution Group. “But first and foremost [shows] need to work in the US, and Limitless has the biggest chance because it is on CBS, on Tuesdays [at 10pm] after two top dramas in NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans.”

CBSSI has done a huge level of business with CSI – which was the most successful series in the world for several years, before being eclipsed by another CBSSI-distributed franchise in NCIS. The end of its network run does not, however, mean the end of CSI on screens around the world.

Talking about the end of the king of the procedural genre, Nuñez says: “CSI is really the series that reintroduced American content to primetime around the world. There are platforms that haven’t been invented yet that will be carrying it in years to come, and CSI: Cyber is carrying on the tradition.”

Another drama focus for CBSSI is Zoo. The CBS net has carved out a new summer window for event series and Under the Dome and Extant have bucked the usual summer trend of programming reality, repeats and lower cost product, and won over viewers in the process.

Based on the eponymous James Patterson novel, Zoo is the latest CBS summer event series. The show follows a renegade zoologist investigating a wave of animal attacks on humans. Patterson is among the exec producers.

Under the Dome used a new model of programming and was successful almost everywhere,” says Nunez. “Then along came Extant and that was hugely successful, and this summer, with Zoo, there will be three event series. Internationally, they perform well in linear and SVOD and the market is excited about Zoo.”


Disney makes dramatic connections


Disney Media Distribution’s senior VP and general manager of distribution, EMEA, Mark Endemano, points to links with the past as a key element of the 2015-16 season slate.

“Connections to returning shows jump out,” he says, referring to the upcoming Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders and The Catch.

The former, an ABC Studios title for CBS, is latest in the Criminal Minds canon, coming after the original continuing series and 2011’s Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. The series follows CSI: NY star Gary Sinise as head of a unit that helps Americans in trouble abroad.

“All studios are always under pressure to create more top-quality procedurals with an international flavour that can connect at a local level and with great American production values,” says Endemano. “We think we have one here.”

The Catch, meanwhile, is the latest in the Shonda Rhimes catalogue. Her existing trio, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder created a formidable Thursday night ABC drama block. The latter only trailed Fox juggernaut Empire in the new season drama rankings this year.

“There is no such thing as too much Shonda,” says Endemano of concerns of Rhimes’ network TV takeover. “I don’t know how she keeps doing it, but she keeps doing it.”

Coming from ABC Studios and Shondaland, The Catch is a thriller from Rhimes, her long-time production colleague Betsy Beers and writer Jennifer Schuur. It follows Mireille Enos (The Killing) as a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of a scam by her fiancé. In between cases, she must find him or risk losing her career.


Fox follows procedure


Two things have happened recently at the Fox studio to leave Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution with one of the biggest slates in recent memory: buyer demand for procedurals is growing, and the introduction of Dana Walden and Gary Newman as combined studio and network chiefs means production and network are more closely aligned, says TCFTVD international television president Marion Edwards.

“Since Dana Walden and Gary Newman took over a relationship has been growing between our production units and the network similar to what CBS, ABC and NBC have,” she says. “That’s why you’ll see more additional content.”

As a result, Fox has three procedurals on show this year. Minority Report, already much-anticipated, has Steven Spielberg’s personal seal of approval and is the first of his movies to be adapted for TV.

Set in 2065, a decade after the film, the show follows a ‘pre-cog’, who is able to see crimes before they happen, and a female police officer as they attempt to stop criminals using their paired talents. “It’s futuristic in an accessible way,” says Edwards.

Early screenings have been well received, as have those for The Frankenstein Code, another sci-fi-themed drama. It follows a corrupt police officer given a second chance after being brought back from the dead.

“It’s intriguing to all of us to think on the chance to come back and fix the mistakes of the past but also about the dangers of that,” says Edwards.

The central character of medical procedural Rosewood, a Miami private pathologist, meanwhile draws comparisons to that other famous network doctor, Quincy, says Edwards.

“Networks can be big and more fun than cable, which has gone down a really dark path, and in this we have a wonderful and appealing central character,” she says.

Rosewood is relentlessly upbeat but gets himself involved in these murder cases because he spots the effects crimes have on bodies that the police have missed.”


NBCU’s Latin love-in


NBCUniversal International Television Distribution has trio of shows featuring huge Latin American female stars on its slate this year.

Jennifer Lopez is producing and starring in police drama Shades of Blue, America Ferrara fronts ensemble workplace comedy Superstore and Eva Longoria is in meta mode playing a telenovela actress in Hot & Bothered.

“The three women are all international stars and that’s how they’re perceived by our customers,” says NBCUITVD president Belinda Menendez. She says it is the star power, and not their Latina backgrounds, that acquisitions executives really care about.

The straight-to-series Shades of Blue sees Lopez playing a cop in a tight-knit crew of officers that not only protects the public but also engages in corrupt practices to line their own pockets. “It is a procedural with extraordinary talent behind and in front of the camera,” says Menendez.

Actress and singer Lopez’s prodco, Nuyorican Productions, Ryan Seacrest Productions and EGTV are coproducing the show along with Universal Television.

Ugly Betty star Ferrara, meanwhile, plays alongside Mad Men’s Ben Feldman among others in half-hour sitcom Superstore as workers in a giant mega-store.

Though workplace comedies are hard to get right, Menendez points to the international success of The American Office as proof a home-run can mean distribution gold.

Hot & Bothered looks like an obvious network play to attract Hispanic American audiences to NBC. Another half-hour comedy, it follows Desperate Housewives alumnus Longoria as the star of a popular telenovela battling behind the scenes to steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast and crew.

The fact she also butts heads with hapless network executives and unfocused writers may well tickle the fancy of channel buyers who found success with 30 Rock, which was one of NBCUITVD’s most-successful comedies of the past decade.


Sony aims to be the main Player


Sony, the only studio not affiliated to a network, had the buzziest show of the 2013 screenings with The Blacklist, and coming from the same stable, Davis Entertainment, is The Player.

It follows former FBI agent Alex Kane, played by Philip Winchester (Strike Back), as he get sucked into a world overseen by a mysterious secret society that runs a high stakes game of chance.

Part of that mysterious society, Mr Johnson, is cast opposite Kane and marks a TV outing for Hollywood A-lister Wesley Snipes.

“Two years ago we had The Blacklist, which was the most sought-after show at the Screenings, and this year we have that again with The Player,” says Keith LeGoy, president, international distribution, for Sony PicturesTelevision.

He adds: “It’s on the same network [NBC] that spawned an international hit with The Blacklist, but has its own identity. There has been a lot of buzz from the beginning and that increased with the casting. Everyone wanted to work with Wesley Snipes and we got him. I think people realise this will be  a global franchise.”

Sony also has Dr. Ken, the ABC half-hour comedy, also from Davis Entertainment. It has The Hangover and Community star Ken Jeong as a grumpy, beleaguered doctor.

His previous work gives a level of international recognition that will help the sales drive, LeGoy says: “Everyone knows Ken from Community and The Hangover and that is important in a world where there are so many entertainment options. Dr. Ken is part of a tradition of fast, funny, brilliantly written heartfelt comedies.”


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