CAA Exploring Scripted TV Venture With Ex-ABC Chief Paul Lee

Paul Lee - H 2016
Jennifer Graylock/WireImage

While the effort is in a preliminary stage, CAA would represent the company and steer projects and clients to it. It is unclear whether CAA would have an ownership stake in the entity.

CAA is edging carefully into the television producing business, a boundary-pushing move for a talent agency.

While the effort is in a preliminary and largely exploratory stage, CAA has been working with Paul Lee, who was replaced as ABC Entertainment president in February, in an attempt to create high-end scripted TV programming costing in the range of $5 million per episode. These programs would be produced and financed through a company funded by TPG, the Texas-based private-equity giant that is the majority owner of CAA, according to an informed source. CAA declined to comment.

If the effort comes to fruition, CAA would represent the company and steer projects and clients to it. It is unclear whether CAA would have an ownership stake in the entity.

According to the informed source, the pitch to prospective creative talent would be that this nascent entity could be an alternative to Netflix and Amazon. The argument is that the two streaming giants have become like other networks in terms of generating notes and interference. And unlike deals through Netflix and Amazon, the TPG entity would involve the potential for ownership and back-end compensation from streaming and traditional syndication rights.

The plan would be to pay for the programming by pre-selling rights to two to three shows a year (to start) to partners from territories around the world, such as Latin America and Europe.

Lee is a former BBC executive who took over ABC Family in 2004 and was promoted to head of ABC Entertainment Group in 2010. His successes included Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish. He departed amid tensions with ABC-Disney TV chief Ben Sherwood after a season that included ratings declines (across networks generally) as well as such misses as Blood and Oil and Wicked City.

The CAA-TPG push, however tentative, follows incursions into production by rival WME-IMG. In both cases, a common theme seems to be an attempt to create a perception of distance by having these efforts fronted by an entity that is not the agency itself — in CAA’s case, by owner TPG and in WME’s case, by IMG, the sports and fashion power it acquired in 2014.

Until lately, talent agencies (unlike management companies) did not typically produce content. Although California's Talent Agencies Act does not explicitly prohibit the practice, the industry traditionally has considered such a move to be a conflict of interest for agents trying to negotiate the most favorable deals for their clients while trying to keep production costs low in their capacity as producers. Hollywood guild regulations do prevent agencies from owning more than 20 percent of a production company, but it's unclear if those regulations would govern a TPG-backed entity.

WME-IMG has launched an original content division that has produced the documentaries Gleason and Michael Moore in TrumpLand. In unscripted programming, WME represents Grand Tour stars Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, while IMG sold global rights for their new Amazon show. WME also reps Steve Harvey, who recently revealed he will end his NBC Universal-produced talk show and launch a new show that will be produced by IMG. A WME insider says the agency does not currently intend to get into scripted content.

A senior television executive says the big agencies are taking risks getting into production, however it’s cloaked. “Agencies trying to own content that clients are creating is always dangerous because of conflicts of interest,” he says. But ultimately, he says, this is a problem that may be corrected by the marketplace: “Other agencies will take advantage of it by poaching clients, saying, `We’ll get you the best deal. We’re not going to steer you to our own production company.’”