Upfront: TV with 'More Style, More Flair, More Production Value' (Analysis)

10:00 AM PST 05/20/2011 by Lacey Rose
NBC
NBC's Smash

The broadcast industry has cause for optimism care of promising series and an expected ad windfall.

After years of bleak market predictions, skittish ad buyers and a sense of doom and gloom about the future of broadcast networks, the annual pitch week known as the television upfront gave studios and networks alike reason for optimism. 

If you believe the prognosticators, the ad market –spurred by a rebounding economy and strong scatter market-- is prepared to come back in a robust way this year. Despite a season devoid of breakout hits, continued viewer erosion and the uncertainty surrounding the NFL, one leading analyst predicted the market for the big four networks could exceed $10 billion this year, eclipsing the 2004 record of about $9.5 billion. In return, the networks rolled out promising slates heavy on comedy, escapism and big ideas.

“Having had a number of years in which the increases were quite minor in the single digits and CPMs were only marginally improved, it appears as if the industry is poised for a significant growth spurt,” says a bullish Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros Television. “The health and wellbeing of the industry is important for everyone.”

Hefty investments are being made on screen too, notes Zack Van Amburg, Sony Pictures TV’s president of domestic programming and production, who says he was particularly struck by the commitment to high production values this development season. “Pilots that we made that had the largest license fees and the most amount of momentum inevitably were the ones that got picked up,” he says of Sony projects like Pan Am and Charlie’s Angels, both at ABC. “Overall, it really feels this week in particular like the broadcast networks are back. It doesn’t feel like they’re chasing the eroding audience that seems to be migrating to cable.”

He adds, “It’s almost like they all got together and said, ‘What can we do differently and in our way better than cable?’ And the answer was to do things a little bit bigger with more style, more flair and more production value.”

The result is big budget shows, including NBC’s Smash, which one insider says cost $7.5 million to produce the pilot, CBS’ Person of Interest, Fox’s Alcatraz and the priciest of all, upcoming dinosaur drama Terra Nova. Luring back talent like Kiefer Sutherland (Fox’s Touch) and Tim Allen (ABC’s Last Man Standing), who sources say is being paid $220,000 per episode plus 7.5 percent back-end, doesn’t come cheap either. 

While a number of those big swings is truly original fare, including Smash, Person of Interest and NBC’s Awake, many of the offerings were more calculated in their reliance on pre-sold properties, be it The Playboy Club (NBC), Prime Suspect (NBC) or Charlie’s Angels (ABC). Of course, having a built-in franchise on its own wasn’t enough, as evidenced by the decision to pass on Wonder Woman, arguably the most buzzed about pilot of the season, and comic franchise Locke & Key. (Rumblings about the latter landing on another network continue.) It was much the same for original content; despite high profile talent in front of the camera (Ethan Hawke) and behind (Antoine Fuqua), Fox didn't add spy thriller Exit Strategy to the fall schedule.

Also prominent on next season’s schedules is an emphasis on women, both as series’ stars and as core viewers watching at home. The former includes Christina Applegate (NBC’s Up All Night), Whitney Cummings (NBC’s Whitney), Sarah Michelle Gellar (CW’s Ringer) and Poppy Montgomery (CBS’ Unforgettable). In fact, not a single one of the eight dramas ordered at ABC has a male lead; and four out of the five comedies picked up at NBC center on women. Over at CBS, there was a clear –and now public-- mandate by entertainment chief Nina Tassler to find female leads and femme-skewing fare. 

But if Warner Bros’ Roth were writing the headline for the week, he says he would focus not on the abundance of female vehicles but rather on the surge of comedies. The networks ordered more than a dozen new half hours, many of them multi-camera, with both ABC and NBC opening up entirely new nights of comedy next season. Among the stand-outs, according to both executives and ad buyers, are CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, ABC’s Apt. 23 and Fox’s The New Girl

Searching for an explanation, Roth suggests it’s because viewers want what they don't have, alluding to a lengthy fallow period in which many had declared the genre either a dead or dying art form.

Perhaps predictably, 20th Century Fox Television co-chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman point to the recent success of Modern Family, a 20th-owned hit for ABC, which they believe inspired the bumper crop of comedy offerings this development season. 

“It was good to see the networks shift [toward comedy] because a successful comedy is still a really powerful show in terms of deriving long term economic benefits,” says Newman, who highlights both the repeatability and the potential for syndication riches. For its part, Family, a broad ensemble, is joining USA’s lineup in 2013 for a $1.5 million per episode fee. (It is worth noting that male-skewing comedies have fared far better in syndication than female-skewing ones historically.)

Of course, it may be as much about the financial viability of these shows as it is the national mood that whets our appetite for them. Sony’s Van Amburg and his fellow president Jamie Erlicht reference a study that their studio commissioned a few years ago. What it found was some very clear indicators about when comedy has been particularly strong historically. 

“It tends to be when a couple of things happen: No. 1, when there’s a change of administration. No. 2, in down times or in a downward-trending economy. And No. 3, during war time,” says Van Amburg. “Historically, that’s when the nation has turned to things that are lighter and brighter with their entertainment because there’s no easier way to escape than in comedy.”

At least two of the networks, CBS and Fox, have acknowledged that they aren’t even done making their comedy orders for next season. Both the Untitled Rob Schneider Project and Peter Knight’s Worked Up comedies still have potential at CBS, with Van Amburg and Erlicht set to meet with Tassler to discuss the latter’s future when they’re back from New York. Over at Fox, entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has decided to pit Family Album against Little in Common in a battle for a spot on the network’s mid-season schedule. The Sony executives have plans to meet with Reilly next week as well to discuss the recent cancellation of promising first-year series Breaking In, which they hope will be revived. 

2011 Upfronts: Winners and Losers.

Additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie.

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose

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