Inside Broadcast's Buying Spree of "Gently Used" Programming

L.A.'s Finest - Tell Me a Story - Swamp Thing - Publicity stills - Split - H 2020
Sony; CBS; The CW

A Bad Boys spinoff starring Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union. A live-action adaptation of Alan Moore's beloved DC Comics title Swamp Thing. An anthology series that brings Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, Dawson's Creek) back to broadcast. In a normal television season, those shows would be among the fall's most anticipated new arrivals.

But the forthcoming fall — and television's annual late-September premiere week — are anything but normal amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, and all three of those aforementioned dramas aired more than a year ago on other platforms.

As the industry-wide production shutdown enters its third month with no indication of when filming can resume, broadcast networks are turning to acquisitions like L.A.'s Finest and such foreign imports as the U.K. comedy Dead Pixels to help fill the holes on their fall schedules. Fox will open its fall with Spectrum's L.A.'s Finest subbing for the new season of the Ryan Murphy-produced 911, while The CW is launching with canceled streaming shows (DC Universe's Swamp Thing and CBS All Access' Tell Me a Story) and two foreign acquisitions as both networks corona-proof their schedules with hopes of production resuming in late 2020 for a January scripted return.

"Because of this moment in time, there's more uncertainty about how and when we can get back into production," says Sony TV distribution president Keith Le Goy, who shopped the second window for L.A.'s Finest. The series, which returns in June for its second season on cable operator Spectrum, was originally developed and passed over at NBC two years ago. That the series was already made with an eye for broadcast and can cut through the clutter with two diverse stars and a known IP in Bad Boys made it appealing to Fox.

As an independent broadcast network without a studio library from which to draw programming, Fox was already in talks to acquire L.A.'s Finest as potential programming insurance for a possible writers strike. Once coronavirus concerns shut down the industry, Fox ramped up talks and acquired the show during the pandemic's early days. The cop drama will join a fall schedule that includes two other scripted series that were already completed and moved from their planned spring debuts.

While both Fox and The CW picked up schedule fillers, multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the marketplace for acquired programming — be it foreign pickups or streaming imports — has not seen an uptick in price because unlike a streamer, each network has its own programming strategy. "There is a fair amount of product out there, but you have to be careful what you acquire so it fits what your brand is," The CW CEO Mark Pedowitz told reporters last week.

Also a factor is that competition for such programming has not reached a fever pitch as other networks aren't entering the race for what one exec called "gently used" originals like L.A.'s Finest. Sources say ABC and CBS are both taking a business-as-usual approach and planning their fall schedules for production to resume in the summer and scripted hits like NCIS and Grey's Anatomy returning as planned in September. Like NBC and The CW, ABC and CBS also have massive studio libraries behind them from which to draw programming. (ABC, for example, has Disney+ and Hulu originals plus a library that also includes content from cable siblings Freeform, FX and National Geographic.)  

The pricing, sources say, is being driven by residuals built into the shows as second-window fees must at least cover those payments to the studios, producers and talent. 

Still, indie studio Sony TV is shopping second window rights to other shows including Spectrum's Mad About You revival (which every broadcast network passed on before it landed at the cable provider) and, per sources, other "gently used" series like YouTube's Karate Kid sequel, Cobra Kai. Movie rights are also being floated after ABC and CBS both revived themed nights for features to decent ratings returns.

Meanwhile, NBC's recent deal for the Canadian medical drama Transplant was in the works before the pandemic as another safeguard against a writers strike. The series was not shopped elsewhere as it is produced in-house via NBCUniversal International Studios. Transplant is not expected to have a slot on NBC's fall schedule as the network, per sources, may hold out until June to announce plans for the 2020-21 season.

And if production isn't able to resume for a September or January return to work, acquisitions from streamers or foreign markets remain a low-cost, low-risk backup plan.

"We will continue to look for acquisitions and make sure we are filling our pipeline with originals that haven't been seen by many in the U.S.," Pedowitz said. "We haven't stopped acquisition mode, one way or the other."