TV Upfronts: Seven Studio Chiefs on Trends, Surprises and That Major Disappointment

Seven studio chiefs talk with THR about the boldest scheduling moves, the shows that have them envious and the time Bob Greenblatt joined Dolly Parton at the piano.
CBS' Supergirl, Fox's Scream Queens & ABC's The Muppets

The dizzying batch of upfront presentations has wrapped, with 45 new series (and counting) added to the 2015-16 television schedule. Reboots, medical dramas and genre plays are red hot, while the industry's sitcom writers had another tough year.

After the schedules were set and big swings decided, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with seven top studio executives to discuss the week's big trends: the retreat in comedy, the push for familiar and the half-dozen passion projects that didn't get the greenlight (for now, anyway). 

If you were to write the headline for this year's upfront week, what would it say?

Zack Van Amburg, Sony Pictures Television: First, I’d probably put "What’s Old Is New." With Coach, Minority Report, Rush Hour, Limitless, Heroes, X-Files ... How do you not look at all of that and go, "Yep, we brought out brands that used to be brands, we dusted them off and here they are. That’s going to save everything!" (Laughs.) I’d also say, "Network Comedy Quietly Retreats." It’s the fewest number of new comedies ordered at least in the last three or so years.

Patrick Moran, ABC Studios: "It's Business as Usual." Given all the challenges that we hear the broadcast networks are facing, I was surprised by how nothing felt like a revolution. In years past, there was the year of the short order or the year of event programming; there wasn’t even that kind of noise this year. It just felt like we were all just bunkering down and continuing to do what felt like a more traditional season of pilots. Nothing felt like a reinvention. I guess that means that there’s still a lot of life left in what we’re doing, even though the apocalypse has been predicted for so many years.

See more Broadcast TV's New Shows 2015-16

David Stapf, CBS Television Studios: It all felt a little safe, but also courageous in places where people need to be courageous. In our case, taking Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a half-hour, Showtime, single-camera musical comedy and saying, "That show can work on The CW and open a night" is pretty courageous.

Bela Bajaria, Universal Television: It’s interesting to see the stability in a lot of the network schedules, but also to see networks using midseason in such a significant way to launch shows at different times of the year.

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

Jonnie Davis, 20th Century Fox Television: Runner at ABC. I had heard from many people that we were close — we were in, we were out, we were in, we were out. I love how that show turned out. But you take the pain and you move on. 

Van Amburg: Sneaky Pete. We had phenomenal testing results — both with the studio and network [CBS]. The good news is that we have some pretty great momentum happening right now. We had several incoming phone calls and then the Sony machine kicked in and we started making several outgoing phone calls, so we’re out to some pretty big partners and we have some genuine interest and interesting conversations happening [mostly with basic cable and streaming outlets].

See more TV Shows That Failed to Survive the 2014-15 Season

Stapf: Super Clyde. It kills me. [The Greg Garcia comedy was first developed and passed over at CBS in 2013.] For me, the show is very personal. I completely understand why it didn’t get on and respect it, but I love that show and would love it to find a home.

Bajaria: Warrior at NBC, but we’re shopping it. Or 48 Hours, which is such a funny family show starring Rob Riggle at Fox, but it isn’t passed on … So maybe there's still life in it. We're going to try!

Moran: The [untitled ABC] NBA project. It was incredibly well done, remarkably well cast and we all loved it. That was the one that was a bit of a heartbreak this year, but we’ll try to find another home for it.

What's the new show you wish was yours (but isn't)?

Jamie Erlicht, Sony Pictures Television: Chicago Med [at NBC] because then we would have all of the Chicago franchise and that would be a fantastic thing. That Dick Wolf might make something of himself yet. (Laughs.)

Howard Kurtzman, 20th Century Fox Television: The America Ferrera NBC comedy, Superstore, looked very funny.  

Davis: The Supergirl trailer really played [well for CBS.] It was fun and it had a sense of adventure.

Van Amburg: Limitless, for sure. I haven't seen it yet, but the fact that [series executive producer] Bradley Cooper is going to be in it was an exciting announcement. He’s a great actor and that was a really fun movie. If I got to pick two, Blindspot, just because we know from Blacklist what that time period [Mondays, following The Voice] historically has been able to launch and create. 

Moran: I haven’t seen the pilot yet, but the one that looks the most interesting to me was Rosewood at Fox because we’ve all been trying to reinvent the character-driven procedural. I’ve tried it a million times and that looked like a great character and a familiar enough franchise. If that show works, it can be their new Bones and run for another 11 years.

Stapf: I’m envious of all things DC Comics because I feel like that’s such a deep library to pull from. I’m always envious of The Flash, Supergirl or any of these ready-made winners.

Bajaria: For comedy, The Muppets [at ABC.] It’s a really fun, commercial, bold choice. And in drama, I’d have to say Scream Queens [at Fox] for the same reason: bold, fresh, fun, attention-grabbing storytelling.

Read more Fall TV: The Complete Schedule

What was the boldest scheduling move you saw from the networks this year?

Van Amburg: The fact that [NBC's now all-live] Undateable went to Fridays and is live going up against ABC, which has been showing a lot of success with Shark Tank.

Moran: Fox’s Tuesday night. They’re launching all new shows, from The Grinder to Scream Queens. I know it’s a very important night for them and they’ve stressed to us that it’s something that they’re rallying behind in terms of promotion, but I thought it was bold to have an entire night of new programming.

Bajaria: CBS not having comedies on Monday. It’s been a long time.

What was the most surprising trend to emerge?

Erlicht: The fact that a lot of either feature brands or old television shows are being rebooted and that there are fewer comedies ordered doesn’t line up with what’s happening in the feature space. In the feature world, there are two trends: superhero movies and big comedies. So it feels like network television has a little bit of catching up to do with [regard to] what an audience seems to want. We’re certainly having real momentum and traction with our comedies on the air.

Bajaria: This is the year that everybody has a medical show. Looking at where Grey’s Anatomy is at this point, it felt like there was opportunity to come in with another medical show. In the last couple of years, we’ve all developed them — we shot a pilot for Jason KatimsCounty a few years ago — but I think this year people were more committed to trying to stake a claim in the medical space.

Kurtzman: I think we’re all aware of the fact that to put a series on a network other than your own is going to be more difficult, but what we’re excited about is the fact that it can be done. We did it in a big way this year with Life In Pieces [which landed the plum post-Big Bang Theory slot] at CBS, and we’re thrilled. I think it’ll be hard for any network to deny a [great] show because, at the end of the day, they're programmers and they want their networks to be healthy.

Read more TV Upfronts: The Schedules, Trailers and Key Takeaways

How about the most frustrating trend?

Moran: It’s so fiercely competitive, whether it’s for a showrunner, a producing director, stage space, your crew. ... To pull together an A-list group is really, really tough. We’ve really tried at the studio to double down on talent, so we moved away from big pod deals and we’ve been investing more in senior writer-producers, showrunners, even people at a midlevel. The idea is to lock up as much great talent as we could, so then we could dispatch them to fill these holes as needed. It was interesting because as we were staffing these shows, we were hearing that a lot of other studios were locking up midlevel writers into overall deals just so that they knew that they had access to even lower-level writers. Historically, it was just those at the very top that you’d make sure that you have, but now it’s all levels. If somebody surfaces as a great piece of manpower, you don’t want to let them go.

Stapf: I don't know about trend, but the biggest challenge that we had this year was the fact that actors didn’t necessarily want to sign on to 22-episode, six-year deals. That makes it increasingly challenging to find the best talent for the right roles because it shrinks the pool. That was frustrating.

Bajaria: The lack of patience. If you don’t open out of the gate or at least the first few weeks, you’re not going to have an opportunity to grow, even if your show is of amazing quality. Obviously it’s so competitive and it’s hard for networks to hang in there on a show that has lower ratings, but the audience has a lot of choices and when you do have good word-of-mouth [you want to be able to give people the chance to] discover it later.

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

Erlicht: Obviously, Bob [Greenbatt] and Dolly [Parton, who sang I Will Always Love You on stage at the NBC upfront, with Greenblatt accompanying her on piano.] The only thing I’ll add is that Bob can really play.

Van Amburg: It’s still going to be Bob Greenblatt but the fact that he hugged Neil Patrick Harris [who is hosting a forthcoming variety show for the network] onstage. Bob’s not known as an overly affectionate guy. We actually tried to high-five once and he legitimately said, "What are you doing? What’s happening?" So, the fact that he so easily hugged Neil onstage showed real affection. Honestly, that was, to me, one of the most surprising things all week. Everybody knows he plays piano with Dolly! 

In five years, the upfront will be …

Van Amburg: Holograms.

Erlicht: Much smaller. It feels like the need to have the entire West Coast television industry in New York for the event is not as necessary as it once was and at the end of the day it’s all about the shows, it’s all about the upfront ad sales for the network, and a little less about a studio/agent/lawyer/fill-in-the-blank presence. So I believe it will be smaller over the years to come.

Stapf: I think you’re already starting to see it change. They’re already talking about viewers on multiple platforms and multiple screens. It’s about the aggregate. I loved the stat from CBS that we have more viewers now than we did 10 years ago. It's interesting because the assumption is that people aren’t watching TV as much anymore, but TV is sort of an archaic term. So, you’re already starting to see where we’re going to be in five years; it’ll just be magnified.