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

The studio chiefs talk with THR about the big scheduling moves, redeveloping pilots and the broadcast networks' diversity push.
Clockwise from top left: "The Blacklist," Greta Gerwig, "American Crime," "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Mulaney"

The dizzying array of upfront presentations have concluded with 54 new series (and counting) ordered for the 2014-15 season. Adaptations, political drama and genre plays are hot, while those sitcom writers didn't fare as well. But before all of the Hollywood suits head back to Los Angeles, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with six of the major studio chiefs to discuss the big trends of the week -- the retreat in comedy, the surprising scheduling moves and those projects that didn't quite make the cut.

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If you were to write the headline for the week, what would it be?

Patrick Moran (ABC Studios): I was really taken by how much drama was on all of those schedules. There was a lot of noise about comedy development this year but the schedules all seem to be beating really hard on one hours. Comedies are a hard thing to do. We haven't seen a breakout comedy hit in awhile. On the drama side, there really seems to be noisy concepts. Gone are the days when we have a trusty team of cops, doctors and lawyers. Now it seems to be either a big, noisy, high-concept idea or something with a genre bend. And then the limited event -- eventized [programming], the short-order, the close-ended, however it's described-- is clearly a big push everywhere, and it's [designed to] make these things as water-cooler as possible. There were very few shows that were announced that I think could even be the traditional 22 [episodes.] It definitely feels like the line between broadcast and cable gets blurrier and blurrier as the broadcast networks continue to push in that direction.

Gary Newman (20th Century Fox Television): What was encouraging for the business was that there were lots of series orders. I think that's generally a good thing for the industry and it speaks to the overall health of the industry. And then there was [a lot of] diverse programming. There seemed to be more inclusiveness in front of the camera, maybe more than ever before. We've really come to a place where casting is very color blind, and that's great, but I think this year we went from color blind casting to a recognition that there are very underserved consumers. One of the things that we were so excited about with [ABC comedies] Cristelaand Fresh Off the Boatis that both shows speak to very relatable family issues seen through a different prism and they feel realistic, honest and funny.

Jamie Erlicht (Sony Pictures Television): I think year-round programming is critical for all networks this year. There's been a real shift in viewer habits, and you're going to see a lot more programming, significant programming with significant marketing budgets behind it, in April or July. I really do believe it has become a four-season business, and not just putting things that you couldn't fit on your schedule but strategically finding tentpole shows throughout the year.

Zack Van Amburg (Sony Pictures Television): [The trend toward more original programming] is interesting. There were two things going on: One was a very strategic move to solidify ratings and capture an audience and you saw some big strategic moves in that vein, and then on the other side of the coin, there was a sense that the only way we are as a network going to remain relevant and still aggregate a bigger audience than cable does is to launch more programming. There was a lot of volume. And I'll say, if you take a look at what the ratio is from success to failure, at a certain point, just being a producer, as a studio being caught up in the volume business, I think you have to start to really analyze that cost-benefit analysis.

David Stapf (CBS Television Studios): Looking at [the schedule] year-round. It isn't just September to May anymore. I really do believe it has become a four-season business, and not just about putting things that you couldn't fit on your schedule but strategically finding tentpole shows throughout the year.

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Is there one passed over pilot that you were particularly surprised or disappointed by?

Moran: One of things we've been pushing for is building our [presence], both at ABC network and at the other broadcast networks, so some of those outside network passes were disappointing. We had, I thought, some strong comedies at NBC this year. Our Rob Lowe comedy, The Pro, [for which] we were really disappointed. We had a pilot at CBS, Save the Date, that we really loved and were disappointed that that didn't go.

Newman: How I Met Your Dad was a disappointment, and there's some misinformation out there about it. Like most pilots, it was imperfect. We're pretty self-critical, and our producers are both self-critical and collaborative. We embraced the idea, along with CBS, that there were things about it that could have been improved and we were completely game for doing some significant redevelopment and reshoots of the pilot. We had a great cast. We really believe in our creative auspices and I think Greta Gerwig is a big TV star, but we felt that Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas] and Greta in that pilot were very much worthy of getting a series order, and as part of that series order we would have happily invested in doing substantial work to that pilot.

But it didn't feel [right] asking the cast, whose options were for a series pickup, to go do that work for a pilot. CBS wanted multiple bites on it, so you’re asking the cast to extend their commitment without a great deal more financial compensation. It felt unfair to the talent. Now that it's free and clear, we're going to explore all of our options. And, by the way, that could easily include discussions with CBS. This was not a big dispute with them. Last year, there was a fair amount written about the dispute we had over Backstromand all that. It wasn't that kind of dispute. The truth is, creatively we were all pretty much on the same page, it was just a matter of we felt that it deserved a series order to ask people to do that kind of work, and CBS wasn't prepared to do that.

Van Amburg: Irreversible [starring David Schwimmer] with the original creator [Segahl Avin] and Peter Tolan behind it felt like the most ambitious, most interesting, most revolutionary concept that we have taken on this year and really believed that ABC was going to have the boldness and the wherewithal to pick it up and schedule it. We are really proud of the pilot. They came back to us and offered us a repilot and want to do it again and maybe choose a different episode and maybe make somecasting adjustments to it. We're weighing that and deciding if that's something that we want to do, but that's something that's still very much in the mix. At CBS, the Jim Gaffigan comedy-- that Peter Tolan properly wrote and executive produced. Jim couldn't be hotter, so that feels like a big, important CBS show. We have ongoing conversations with Nina [Tassler] and Les [Moonves] and we're told that next week we will more properly address it. We've already had outgoing and incoming phone calls about that show elsewhere, but CBS is a great partner and we'd love to see it happen there.

Stapf: Sober Companion [at Fox]. Surprised? I don't know. Disappointed, but still very, very hopeful. That hurt the most. But again, she didn't break up with me yet. [Discussions with the network are ongoing.]

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What about a picked up show you wish was yours?

Bela Bajaria (Universal Television): Gotham. It's an amazing title and franchise, and it would be lovely as a studio if we were sitting on gigantic franchise like Marvel or DC and the brand value of those. We've developed things based on comic books in the past, and it's interesting area. We did The Sixth Gunas a pilot last year. It's an area that for several years -- not just recently -- we've been interested in.

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What's the most surprising trend to emerge at this year's upfront?

Van Amburg: There seems to be, not a retreat per se, but not as much confidence in what comedy is. It seemed like everybody was pushing and touting their drama schedule with a little more weight than they were their comedy schedule. And yet, when you look at the box office, it feels like big comedies are the loudest headlines of the day. So it would be nice to feel like that balance is back. I also think it leaves wide-open the possibility for what comedy becomes in cable. There's a big opportunity there and you're going to see a real growth trend. FX has done it really well, and I think there are some other bigger premium networks that are going to follow suit.

Erlicht: The most surprising trend was the lack of comedy support. When the world goes into dark time or when the economy goes south, the country turns to comedies, and we saw that trend a few years back. So maybe it's great news? The country and the world are in a great place and we have nothing to worry about.

Bajaria: More flexibility in the amount of episodes that networks order. The other thing that I hope isn't a trend and just becomes the constant is that there are a lot of dramas with really complicated, strong, interesting female leads. And diverse, too.

Race was a theme explored in several projects this year. Why now?

Moran: It was something that was deliberate in development in different ways. We intentionally pursued family shows that had diversity in them. That was very important. On the half-hour side, we really pursued diversity both in front and behind the camera. On the hour side, diversity was a theme when you look at American Crime-- we deliberately wanted to tackle diversity and race and where we are in the country -- but then something like How to Get Away With Murder, where we cast Viola Davis, it wasn't written racially specific. It was just a great piece of casting. But in our development conversations at ABC, we've discussed how the next generation of contemporary family show will be dealing with issues of diversity. Modern Family has been on now for six years and it just felt like the logical next place to go was to sort of pursue other avenues.

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Despite hefty development, you saw two networks, NBC and CBS, cut long-standing comedy blocks and another, Fox, order only a few half-hours. Why?

Moran: Comedy is a very tricky needle to thread. I also think that comedies also require a little bit more patience, and I'm wondering in this climate if the networks feel like they can exercise enough patience to launch and support a half-hour if it doesn't come out of the gate like gangbusters.

Newman: I think it's just been enough years of people banging heir head against the wall. (Laughs.) You watch comedies and it's very, very challenging. I think there's a passion and an urgency to watch that seems to be a little more easy to achieve in drama than in comedy. It has something to do with serialized story telling and the way they develop over time. In comedies, the characters seem to stay a little more in one place in terms of their development. Modern Family was really an exception. There was an urgency to watch it. People wanted to be a part of the national conversation the day after.

Stapf: It's very, very hard. Creatively, it's harder to do a good comedy than it is a good drama because you have to tell a story and you have to make them laugh. You have to fall in love with those characters and their behavior is ultimately what should be making you laugh -- and cry. It's also so much more about chemistry and alchemy. I often think of Friends and if any one of those [cast members] weren't in it, would it have worked? The writing was great, but there was something special about that chemistry. Look at CBS with How I Met Your Mother, it came on, it did fine. But they believed in it creatively and it grew into a hit. Patience is rare today because of the economics and the business structure we all live in. Comedies need more time so you can fall in love with those people versus just having a car blow up.

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What was the most surprising scheduling move?

Moran: I was surprised that ABC pushed Grey's back to 8 p.m. and Scandal to 9 to let How to Get Away go at 10. It was a bold move for ABC to do, so I was excited to see that. And I can't remember the last time one showrunner [Shonda Rhimes] had an entire night on the schedule like that.

Van Amburg: I suppose the most surprising one might have been Fox, [where you saw] an absolute commitment to try to grow shows, which is admirable. Fox way over-indexed in trying to commit to stability rather than just pure growth or growth potential of launching new shows. They certainly have a few new ones that look good, but that was probably the most surprising. It certainly bucks the trend of what a lot of the other networks are doing. ABC canceled a lot of shows. I think NBC canceled a lot of shows. CBS, which had the most historic stability, is picking up more dramas than they have.

Bajaria: Fox breaking up its animation blockon Sunday was a big move. I think The Blacklist doing two-parter out of the Super Bowl into Thursday was smart.

What's the most competitive time period?

Moran:The Blacklist and Scandal. I'm interested in seeing when they're up against each other. Those are the two noisiest dramas and I'm just trying to think of what one does to the other.

Newman: There seems to be some really crowded time periods on Tuesday. I was sitting next to [Warner Bros. Television chief] Peter Roth at the ABC upfront, and when they announced Selfie [on Tuesday at 8 p.m.] I could see a little tear run down his face. I'm kidding, but no one wants to open a night with a new show, [especially] in a time period where there are some special shows.

Van Amburg: Thursdays in February with Blacklist and Scandal is very interesting.

Stapf: All of them. Mondays at 9, Mondays at 10. Thursday at 9. Pretty much every time period is hyper-competitive. And until the world wakes up and realizes that you shouldn't look at your overnights, [time periods] will always matter because we're all so competitive and driven by "How'd I do?" It kills me every Friday morning to wake up and look at the Elementary number and think, well, it's OK. And then you get the C3 numbers and go, "Oh my God." Those are the numbers we should be paying attention to.

Bajaria: There's nowhere to move or hide and have some safe, easy spot on the schedule. Mondays at 8 in the fall, that's going to be really competitive: The Voice, Big Bang Theory, Gotham and Dancing With the Stars is a really competitive night. Moving Scandal to Thursdays at 9 creates a very competitive hour, too.

Next step is staffing the writers rooms for these shows. What's the most interesting trend to emerge in that part of the process?

Moran: One tricky thing that a lot of the studios have been faced with is these shows that do not have showrunners attached. [Showrunners] seem to be in sort supply, just given the number of series between broadcast, cable and now new media. And great showrunners are hard to come by, so if you have them you want to lock them up.