TV Upfronts: 8 Studio Chiefs Sound Off on Trends, Surprises and the Pass That Stung the Most

With the networks' dog-and-pony shows behind them, the studio heads talk with THR about the trends that have them scratching their heads and the new series that have them envious.

Another jam-packed week of upfront presentations is in the books, with 42 new series added to the 2016-17 schedule. Reboots and other IP efforts scored big once again, while the renewed push for comedy — particularly those high-concept half-hours — couldn't be ignored.

With the schedules locked (for now, anyway), The Hollywood Reporter caught up with eight studio chiefs to discuss the week's big trends along with the pickups that had them riding high and the passes that brought them back down to earth.

If you were to write the overarching headline of upfront week, what would it be?

Zack Van Amburg, Sony Pictures TV: Stability reigns along with big bets. The networks had a fairly conservative approach. The number of pickups was slightly down this year, and we saw a lot of schedules largely intact. In terms of big bets, Jimmy Kimmel had the funniest line about it: "All your old VHS tapes are now television shows." Big movies, big brands, big IP and, in the case of original shows — like some of ours with Timeless and Notorious — big, flashy, loud, high-concept shows.

Jamie Erlicht, Sony Pictures TV: The golden era of the megaproducer trend continues. The networks are going to tried-and-true, successful producers for the majority of their programming.

Bela Bajaria, Universal TV: First, I'd say, Hamilton, Hamilton, Hamilton. (Laughs.) I think the overriding message was that with each network, there was a really strong sense of stability on their schedule.

Patrick Moran, ABC Studios: I was struck by the amount of pre-existing titles that made their way onto the schedule — this idea of relying on familiarity as opposed to bold original ideas is a theme that came out of the week.

David Stapf, CBS TV Studios: It feels like there's safety and security in big franchises and big names. You step back and look at the landscape and the things that got picked up and it's the break-away-from-the-clutter titles and/or talent attached that allows you to stand out.

Peter Roth, Warner Brothers TV: More comedies and a plethora of midseason fare.

What was the most rewarding pickup?

Bajaria: Mike Schur doing The Good Place for NBC is incredibly rewarding. It's very funny and it's about something. And then Pure Genius from Jason Katims on CBS. It's full circle for me because I worked there for 16 years, so it's personally rewarding to be back with my former colleagues and have such a strong drama on their schedule.

Moran: ABC's American Housewife, which has been a labor of love. It was not a script that had a giant penalty against it; it was just a really good piece of writing, and we got very lucky casting Katy Mixon and we had a fantastic director in Ruben Fleischer. We had been trying to tap into that POV for a long time, and it was just one of those pilots where it just worked the way you hope it does.

Howard Kurtzman, 20th Century Fox TV: The Exorcist at Fox because, to me, it was the most unexpected. It was a really big swing in an area that's not really on broadcast television. And cinematically, it's fantastic. I wasn't sure I'd be able to watch because it's really scary, but it was so great that I couldn't turn it off.

Jonnie Davis, 20th Century Fox TV: Lee Daniels' Star. Being inside of his imagination when Lee's coming up with these ideas is incredible.

Stapf: A big goal of ours, which you've heard me say year after year, had been, "I need to get more comedy on the air. I got to start scoring comedy." We knew we had stacked the deck with Matt LeBlanc on [CBS' Man With a Plan] and we're a co-owner on Kevin James' Kevin Can Wait, so it was thrilling to get The Great Indoors not only on CBS but in the best time slot in TV [Thursday nights behind The Big Bang Theory].

Roth: The move of Supergirl from CBS to The CW is an outstanding shift in every regard. The show's content is more appropriately positioned on The CW, and I believe it'll ensure an arguably longer run on the network. I think the sensibility of the show is better for our producers and what it is that they want to accomplish, and CBS was very good to us in enabling it to happen.

What was the passed-over pilot that most surprised or disappointed?

Erlicht: We still have several, including Cruel Intentions, in contention. It will see the light; we're already in conversations with NBC about how that can happen. Summer is still part of the conversation.

Bajaria: We loved Tina Fey's The Kicker, a multicam comedy at CBS. They're all so wildly talented and it was really funny. That probably was the toughest one this year.

Moran: The Death of Eva Sofia Valdez felt like a great ABC soap with a great lead in Gina Torres. I don't know all of the specifics, but it didn't make it on the schedule. I'd love to find another home for that one if I could.

Davis: It's not a pilot, but The Grinder not coming back was gut-wrenching because we loved that show. We're all scratching our heads trying to figure out why it didn't find the number that it needed to sustain. Look, we get it, it's a business and not everything can go, but that one stung.

Stapf: The one that really stung, even though I completely respected and understood the decision, was Nancy Drew. I love those little-engine-that-could type shows, and I think Sarah Shahi is a huge star. It was a just a really good pilot that, unfortunately, there wasn't enough room for at CBS.

What's the new show you wish was yours?

Erlicht: Chicago anything!

Bajaria: Fox's Making History, for the big swing and the auspices [Phil Lord and Chris Miller] behind it. And then Bull, which looks like a really good CBS show.

Moran: The 24: Legacy cutdown was really exciting. I love that franchise, and it seems like Fox has reinvented it in a smart way and didn't just try to replicate Keifer Sutherland and his role. It made the whole thing feel fresh.

Kurtzman: In terms of a big swing, I love the Downward Dog idea at ABC. Because it is such a big swing, it may not succeed but I'm rooting for it. It's a clever idea, and if well executed it could be a winner, and that's good for our business.

Davis: Designated Survivor at ABC. We love Kiefer Sutherland at 20th. He would have a statue outside of our studio. That's a drop-the-mic show.

Stapf: Frequency is a show that I admire. I thought it was really well done, and I'm a little envious that that one wasn't mine.

Roth: I've only seen clips, but I was very taken with Designated Survivor.

What's the most surprising or interesting trend to emerge this year?

Van Amburg: I was encouraged and surprised that there was such a commitment to comedy by CBS and ABC. It felt like a lot of the headlines going into the upfronts were woes around comedy, and certainly NBC has been very vocal about over-committing to drama. So, I was very encouraged to see comedy still is an important part of everyone's lineup.

Erlicht: I would agree with Zack on the commitment to comedy at ABC and CBS. And Hamilton. Clearly, Hamilton was a significant trend this year!

Bajaria: There's such an expansion of comedy, and many of them were high-concept comedies this year.

Moran The familiarity and then the crazy high-concept comedy seems to be a big trend at the networks, between the Fox comedies Son of Zorn and Making History, ABC with Downward Dog and Imaginary Mary, and The Good Place at NBC. We've talked in years past about feeling like there were a lot of the single-camera family show at all of the networks. This is about trying something new. I don't know if there's a real thorough strategy behind it or if it's just about taking a big shot in the comedy space to try to put some more energy into it.

Kurtzman Stacking. We all know the way viewers are watching TV and consuming content is changing, and giving our own network and other networks the ability to stack their shows so that the viewer could catch up and become engaged in a show became a fundamental part of the negotiation this year.

Davis The higher concept shots being taken in comedy, which were informed by Last Man on Earth. You're seeing a talking-dog show, time-travel shows …

Roth The increased number of comedies. We've gone from what was two comedies at NBC to a lot more for midseason. You have a comedy presence at Fox, ABC has opened up a new night of comedy, and CBS now will have eight comedies on their schedule.

How about the most frustrating trend?

Van Amburg: You saw a lot of networks want to own their own content, which we never begrudge, but sometimes it feels like it's at the expense of the best show — that's an independent studio's viewpoint, so there may be another side of that coin. And then there were a lot of articles being written heading into the upfronts about stacking rights, and I'd say we came to a positive, successful conclusion on both sides — meaning being flexible with ownership and really treating it like a partnership, both in terms of co-producing and limiting the extent of the stacking rights. But we're in a delicate place in that equilibrium, and we need to make sure that it's sustainable for everybody and that that ecosystem remains healthy.

Erlicht: Three years ago, no one had heard of or knew what stacking rights were, and now they're pivotal for every single network and imperative for every single studio to figure out how to find the right balance between giving up certain rights and making sure your show is found by the right and best audience. Television has been evolving faster than it ever has in its history and sometimes the business deals are getting ahead of where we need to be as an industry. It's imperative to make sure that, going forward, we figure out the right balance between creative access to the shows and economic well-being for the studios in maintaining the value of those shows.

Bajaria: The frustrating trend is usually during the development cycle where there's this thing that just worked and then suddenly a lot of people want to buy that kind of thing.

Moran: Not to harp on it, but you do wonder about the familiar IP trend. I get needing some sort of recognizability to help promote, but just because it's familiar doesn't mean it's the basis for a television show.

Stapf: It's the same frustration you have every year. You make a lot of good pilots and there are not enough time periods, so your heart gets broken every single year. That's part of the game, and everyone understands that, but it doesn't make it any easier.

The hot-button issue this year was in-season stacking rights — the networks demanding the ability to stream a seasons' worth of episodes on all of their platforms as opposed to the most recent five episodes. How concerning is the trend?

Erlicht: It's extremely important. But it's not about giving up the rights; it's about finding compromise. And if you do give up some of the rights, being compensated for it from the networks. People are changing how they view TV. We can't sit here and pretend that stacking rights aren't important, that it doesn't matter, that we can continue to do business the way it's been done for the last 50, 60 years because we can't. We need to figure out how to get the audience to watch a show in new and interesting ways that the audience is currently embracing. In a lot of those cases, it's about finding the balance between the economic needs and the viewing needs on any particular show. We've been working with the networks for that balance, whether it's backstop deals, partnership deals or the strength of the international marketplace. There's a value to stacking that theoretically could take away some of the economics of a show, but you either get compensated for it or you get overcompensated in other areas. 

Bajaria: We've all been discussing the business changing and being creative in the different ways we put deals together and doing so in a way that hasn't been done before in terms of who gets what window and how quickly does that happen. I think this is part of the conversation of the last few years, and each year it starts becoming more important and essential in the deal making. At the end of the day, the studio and the network both have an enormous investment in these shows, and we want people to come and find them.

Moran: I've come around on in-season stacking rights for the first year. I get it and it seems like everyone is moving in that direction — maybe a little slowly, but the business is going there.

Kurtzman: I feel like stacking may be helpful to connecting viewers back to television, so I don't know that it is concerning. We're in a very fluid time with respect to viewers and their connection to shows. So right now stacking is an issue, but it may not be going forward. Just like years ago, everything was about repurposing — repurposing shows off the network onto cable platforms — and then it didn't really develop and it went away. Stacking may too, but right now it's probably important for viewers to be able to catch up with a show, and that's what stacking allows.

Looking back at upfront week, what's the thing that you still can't believe happened?

Van Amburg: I was surprised how many of the networks decided to open with Hamilton or an homage to it.

Bajaria: The Nashville and Castle cancellations were surprising, especially because all of the negotiations [with Nathan Fillion and four other stars on the former and the new showrunners on the latter]. On Castle, that felt like a lot of work to secure the next season. It was interesting to see most of the networks take a very hard look at their schedules and see a lot of beloved and long-running shows, brands on networks and even some first-season shows that people really liked creatively not get renewed; yet most of the networks ended up with very strong returning series on their schedule. To be able to do both is interesting.

Moran: I was surprised about Nashville and Castle. We're not in the scheduling rooms, so we're hearing about it not long before the rest of the town hears about it. I'm surprised that neither of them got on the schedule. I know Channing [Dungey, ABC entertainment president] felt like she had to make certain scheduling decisions that were right for the network, but we had contemplated one or the other, maybe both, but not neither.

Kurtzman: The Carmichael Show got picked up! I couldn't be happier about that. My wife, Sharon [Klein, head of casting for 20th TV,] and I went to Sadelle's for smoked fish Sunday morning [with friends.] It's a tough reservation, and we sat down and my phone started ringing. I went outside [to negotiate that deal] and I missed all of breakfast. I came back in and they had left me half a bagel and a cup of cold coffee. At least we got the show picked up. (Laughs.) But I'd do it all again. We believe in that show and we believe in Jerrod's voice.

Roth: For us, Supergirl was the best thing that's happened as well as the biggest thing that has happened this week.

 

comments powered by Disqus