TV Upfronts: 8 Studio Chiefs on Ownership, Surprises and the Passes That Hurt Most

With series orders at a five-year low, the faces responsible for producing broadcast's new crop of shows open up about the ownership push, frustrating trends, surprising pickups and passes.
Courtesy of ABC (Ritter), FOX (VanCamp), CBS (Boreanaz, Armitage), NBC (Spencer, Heche)

What's old is new again as the broadcast networks touted the multiple reboots, revivals and spinoffs among the 39 new series joining the 2017-18 schedule. Military dramas replaced time travel as the genre du jour as a renewed sense of patriotism was hard to ignore. Here, eight studio executives weigh in on what has them surprised, frustrated and envious. 

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

Zack Van Amburg, Sony Pictures TV: Lots of time shifting leads to cautious optimism. Everyone saying broadcast TV is still the greatest place for advertisers and that they deliver mass audience — they’re just doing it in a very different way.

Peter Roth, Warner Bros. TV: The number of remakes of classic shows that are being relied upon to help generate new audiences.

Pearlena Igbokwe, Universal TV: Premium video content is back!

Howard Kurtzman, 20th Century Fox TV: Vertical integration. It's never been more evident.

Patrick Moran, ABC Studios: Fewer new shows across the board, especially in fall. That was a symptom of some stability and a number of bubble shows that came back. 

What was your most rewarding pickup?

Van Amburg: Timeless.

Roth: Blindspot. We made a deal with NBC in which there was a value add to them.

David Stapf, CBS TV Studios: CBS' SEAL Team.

Igbokwe: NBC's The Brave.

Jonnie Davis, 20th Century Fox TV: The Resident. We've been trying to crack the next breakout procedural.

Moran: The Mayor and The Gospel of Kevin.

What was the most disappointing or surprising pass?

Van Amburg: The Goldbergs spinoff. We’re talking about if there's a smarter way and place to do it elsewhere.

Roth: 2 Broke Girls. We were hoping to have at least one final season. 

Stapf: I'm determined to find a home for Insatiable [after CW's pass]. It's a bold show that's not on TV.

Igbokwe: Sackett Sisters [at NBC]. If it doesn't go at NBC, we'll shop it.

Howard Kurtzman: Last Man Standing. If there's a way to bring it back, we will explore those opportunities.

What’s the new show you wish was yours?

Van Amburg: [CBS'] Young Sheldon. I wish we had a show about a special kid growing up in the '80s with a complicated relationship with his father and a strange way of both of them expressing their love for each other. Oh, wait ...

Roth: CBS' SWAT.

Stapf: Young Sheldon. It was funny, charming and I can't wait to watch.

Davis: Young Sheldon.

Igbokwe: CBS All Access' Star Trek Discovery.

Moran: NBC's Will and Grace.

How about the most surprising or frustrating new trend?

Van Amburg: Ownership and a real pressure for self-dealing.

Jamie Erlicht, Sony Pictures TV: Reduced episodic orders. The days of 22-24 episodes are numbered. The networks are looking to try more material and with reduced episodes, you’ve got a bigger strain on economics, domestically and internationally, where they want more product.

Roth: The need for networks to control or have an ownership position in as many series as humanly possible. That's a trend that's here to stay. The entire ecosystem is different. How can we keep the sanctity of our economic infrastructures working well? It's getting tough out there.

Stapf: Revivals.

Igbokwe: ABC picking up Roseanne and the fact that their multicam Friday night is gone. They took a left turn. 

Moran: Between Roseanne, Will and Grace and American Idol, a lot of familiar titles are being brought back around.

What was the most challenging part of negotiations?

Van Amburg: The more mature hits were created in an era where studios would control the syndication rights. But when you’re taking more stacking and streaming rights and need to build your own platform and the rolling five [episodes] has turned into the whole season, that’s a seismic shift. The shows that studios take deficits on are built upon the assumption that season five and beyond is going to be at full cost of production. Now you’re seeing concern and pushback around that. The Modern Family and our Goldbergs and Blacklist conversations were around that.

Roth: The economic challenges we're all facing is manifesting in our negotiations. We are all trying to create a stronger business model. Linear audiences are declining, so how do we maintain the strength of our positions?

Igbokwe: A good number of our pickups were at NBC so there wasn’t a lot of antagonistic negotiations going on.

Kurtzman: Getting an agreement on the two-year deal for Modern Family.

Moran: Reduced licensing fees, stacking and SVOD were themes in bringing things back.

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

Van Amburg: The reserved and cautious approach to upfronts with concern around the WGA strike — and suddenly all the same parties got scheduled. It feels like antiquated glory. Sorry, agencies, save your money next year.

Igbokwe: As a good Catholic girl, Timeless is the second best resurrection story I've heard.

Kurtzman: That New Girl got a [final season] pickup. It went back and forth the week before it happened.

Stapf: These surprising deaths. You're going so fast here and then you look up and Brad Grey passed.

Moran: I was surprised to see the Backstreet Boys at ABC, they kept that a secret — even from us.

I couldn’t get through upfronts without …

Erlicht: Sleeping pills!

Van Amburg: Laughing!

Roth: Emergen-C.

Igbokwe: My walking flats.

Kurtzman: A martini.

Davis: Gin and tonic.

Moran: A lot of wine.

Next year at this time, remind me …

Erlicht: To stay in L.A.

Van Amburg: To remember how lucky we are to be doing this.

Erlicht: I think that was Zack's answer to my answer!

Roth: What happened last year!

Stapf: To get some sleep.

Igbokwe: To book my summer vacation before upfronts start.

Davis: To have more specs ready to go.

Moran: To get plenty of sleep before I leave for New York.

The most exciting call I got to make this upfronts was to …

Erlicht: Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan about the Timeless reversal. It was a remarkable and incredibly fun call to be able to make.

Roth:To Bruno Heller and everyone at Gotham.

Stapf: Dynasty's Sallie Patrick, who was having lunch with one of my favorite other writers, Liz Tigelaar.

Igbokwe: We couldn't find Mindy Kaling for an hour to tell her Champions was picked up. She was in a spin class. 

How concerning is the growing importance of vertical integration for an untethered studio?

Van Amburg: I’d be concerned if we did three times the volume in broadcast and had three times the number of shows in that space. I don’t think we’re any more concerned this year than last year or the year before.

Roth: In spite of the challenges, the independence we hold is one of the most important and precious advantage of being at Warners. We have an extraordinary roster of talent that thrives when they have the freedom to bring the best idea to the right network for the right reason.

Stapf: Warners and Sony had great years. Their shows are getting on because the network was able to get a piece of ownership and because they deserve to be.

Igbokwe: It depends on how flexible they're willing to be. Sony has been on that bandwagon from the beginning and that has served them well and Warners is coming around to it. We can't go back to five years ago, the economics have changed too much.

Moran: Ownership is a big part of the equation here. Being unaffiliated I suspect those studios are going to feel a squeeze when you look at how insulated network and studio relationships are becoming. It's an important part of the equation when you're trying to drive revenue.  

Keep track of all the broadcast renewals, cancellations and series pickups with THR's handy scorecard.