TV Upfront Aftermath: 9 Studio Chiefs Sound Off on Surprising Trends and Shopping Shows

Execs from Warners, Sony, CBS, ABC, Universal and 20th TV weigh in on the most frustrating thing about last week's upfronts and the new shows they wish were theirs, among other hot topics.
Elizabeth Fisher/CBS
CBS' 'Evil' is an early favorite among executives.

As Madison Avenue buyers prepare to pony up more $9 billion across the 2019-20 primetime schedule, Hollywood’s studios are turning their focus to transforming the latest batch of broadcast pilots from shiny sales pieces to bona fide series. Collectively, those production houses landed 36 series on the air, 22 of them dramas, despite a rapidly evolving marketplace that’s still reeling from major mergers (see a bulked-up Disney, thanks to more than $71.3 billion in Fox assets) and a growing cadre of streaming services. As the frenzied week of pitches and parties wrapped in New York, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with nine studio chiefs — CBS TV Studios' David Stapf; Warner Bros. TV's Peter Roth; ABC Studios' Patrick Moran; 20th TV's Jonnie Davis and Howard Kurtzman; Universal TV's Pearlena Igbokwe; and Sony TV's Jeff Frost, Chris Parnell and Jason Clodfelter — for their candid assessment, from the projects they covet to the calls they’d rather not have made. 

The buzzword of upfront week was …

PETER ROTH Change.

PATRICK MORAN Stability.

JONNIE DAVIS Spinoffs and stability. 

PEARLENA IGBOKWE Reach and scope. 

CHRIS PARNELL Impressions.

The most surprising trend was ...

DAVID STAPF The flexibility of the networks with regards to shorter orders and scheduling. 

MORAN There aren’t that many new shows for the fall. And there was a lot of talk about reboots but not that many made it to the schedule.  

IGBOKWE The [smaller] number of cancellations. There’s always that sense of, "Let’s try something else, it might do better"; and for the most part, they’re finding it doesn’t. So, better to stick with the thing you invested time and money in and see if you can grow it in any kind of way. 

JASON CLODFELTER How few new shows were ordered compared to previous years.

 

And the most frustrating trend ... 

STAPF Dealing with the rising cost of talent — actors, writers and showrunners — yet still wanting to produce quality premium stuff on a budget in a business model that makes sense. 

MORAN Stability is frustrating, too, because there’s not a ton of opportunity for new shows. If we’re coming out of next year with more success than failure, it’ll be a strategy that pays off.

DAVIS The cancellation of shows in season three. 

PARNELL Short orders.

JEFF FROST The migration to multiple platforms. As new ones emerge, they want to put our shows on multiple platforms instead of just one and it’s complicated the deal making process. 

The biggest difference between this year versus last year was...

STAPF How we are staffing our shows. Last year, we were dealing with agents; this year, we’re mostly dealing with lawyers.

ROTH There’s a greater concern generally about the state of traditional linear broadcast television. 

MORAN I enjoy agency parties but I also enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere [at this year’s upfront] — and my liver will thank me. 

KURTZMAN The WGA-ATA negotiation has impacted our ability to staff. And the high cost of talent — I hear [Stephen] Dorff’s Deputy contract is pretty crazy.

CLODFELTER The conglomerate clutter.

PARNELL The [presentations] were about a slate of networks instead of a slate of shows and the brands did not feel entirely cohesive because they’re throwing a lot at you. 

 

The thing I still can’t believe happened this upfront was ...

STAPF Seeing the Beverly Hills, 90210 cast onstage at the Fox upfront.

DAVIS Perfect Harmony getting that prime spot (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC). For an outside studio to be prioritized like that in this day and age is remarkable. 

IGBOKWE For the past couple upfronts, there was always a great Cinderella story — Timeless and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — and this year, it was Emergence [which moved from NBC to ABC]. 

FROST Bull getting renewed. 

The new show I wish was mine is ...

STAPF Batwoman. I’m envious of that [DC] library.

ROTH Evil and The Unicorn.

MORAN Perfect Harmony.

KURTZMAN Deputy.

DAVIS Stumptown.

IGBOKWE Evil.

CLODFELTER Council of Dads.

FROST Evil.

The hardest call I made or received was …

ROTH [Passing along the cancellation news for] Whiskey Cavalier and Splitting Up Together.

MORAN We were passionate about the Kerry Washington-Leslie Odom pilot for ABC that didn’t go. That was heartbreaking because it’s based on a personal story. 

DAVIS Liz Heldens (The Passage), Scott Silveri (Speechless) and Lee Daniels (Star) are three incredible creators and when we got to the end of the fight, it was tough.  

IGBOKWE New York Undercover and Prism. The auspices — Carol Mendelsohn and Dick Wolf — are fantastic. We’re out shopping them and hopefully I get to make a better call. 

Of my passed over pilots, I intend to shop ...

STAPF The new Frankenstein show, Alive.

KURTZMAN We’d love to set Speechless up elsewhere. 

PARNELL We’re out with Our House and Super Simple Love Story

MORAN We didn't have a dud this year and I'd happily try to repurpose any we shot. We haven't finished production on Triangle yet and [ABC entertainment president] Karey [Burke] held back on announcing midseason plans because it's still in the works. And Heart of Life is being redeveloped.

The biggest threat to the traditional studio business is ... 

STAPF The challenge is balancing the escalating costs with existing business models and being nimble enough to figure out new business models to make it work.   

IGBOKWE At some point, we have to get ahold of ourselves on the talent bidding wars going on. 

FROST Platforms taking more rights and paying less for them — and that’s a threat to quality TV. 

The overall deal business is ...

STAPF Challenging. 

ROTH Out of control. 

MORAN Very heated.  

FROST Overheated.

Interview edited for length and clarity.