NBC sets sail with 'Crusoe'

Net orders 13 episodes of Brit series

Watch out, "Lost" and "Survivor" — NBC is bringing to primetime the original tropical island castaway, Robinson Crusoe.

NBC has picked up "Robinson Crusoe," a drama series based on Daniel Defoe's classic novel, with a 13-episode order.

"Crusoe" came out of an unorthodox brainstorming idea of NBC's new chief, Ben Silverman, who had asked his development team to generate a list of the most engaging stories ever told — everything from "The Last of the Mohicans" to "Sleeping Beauty." "Crusoe" was at the top of that list. Also high on it and under serious consideration at the network are the tales of David and Goliath and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," sources said.

"Crusoe" will be produced by Universal Media Services and Power, the leading European producer of high-end TV movies and miniseries. According to Power, this marks the first time in 45 years that a scripted series for a U.S. broadcast network is produced by a British company.

The budget for the 13-episode series is said to be about $35 million. NBC/UMS's portion is estimated to be about $10 million, for which NBC gets domestic rights to "Crusoe."

Power, which will shoulder the rest of the cost, gets international distribution rights.

The deal gives NBC a series for a little more than the price of a high-end drama pilot. (The two-hour pilot of "Lost" reportedly cost $10 million-$12 million).

"It gives us a building block and an opportunity to do year-round programming and take risk with alternative formats," Silverman said.

While "Crusoe" will be "efficiently produced," it will have the look and production values of a high-end drama, Silverman said.

"Crusoe" follows a new business model NBC introduced last week with the anthology series "Fear Itself," which also was picked up with a 13-episode order at a reduced license fee (HR 9/25). By committing to more episodes upfront and handing international rights to its outside producing partner upfront, NBC gets to do big-budget drama series for a fraction of the cost.

While "Fear" is targeted for summer, NBC plans to launch "Crusoe" in-season, either next fall or midseason 2009, depending on whether there will be a strike.

Strike-related jitters certainly play a factor in NBC's recent series spree. The network ordered three drama series — "Crusoe," "Fear" and Tom Fontana's "The Philanthropist" — in the past week.

"Crusoe" will couch the 1719 novel with a contemporary feel and voice, including a 21st century take on race relations, but it will be a period drama, taking place in the 17th century, when the book is set.

"It's part 'MacGyver,' part contemporary morality tale about race and personal discovery, part comedy, and part 'Castaway' meets 'Survivor'," Silverman said.

Like the novel, NBC's series will center on Crusoe and his relationship with his loyal servant, Friday. But in addition to their adventures overcoming marauding militias, hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and apocalyptic lightning storms described in the book, the series will introduce additional characters and elements, including a MacGyver-like knack of the lead character for making handy tools and devices out of common items.

"We're bringing 'Robinson Crusoe' to the 21st century using the original character to create something very real and authentic, but also something new and different," Power founder and CEO Justin Bodle said.

"Crusoe" will be adapted to series by an American writer, while, in keeping with the main character's British roots, the title role will most probably be played by a U.K. actor, with an Aussie also a possibility. Australia is being eyed as a shooting location.

Power, whose telefilms and miniseries have aired on PBS and U.S. cable channels like the Hallmark Channel, had been looking to get into business with commercial American broadcasters. As part of that game plan, the company in May hired veteran NBC Uni International TV exec Chris Philip as president of worldwide sales.

So when Power, whose bread and butter is the four-hour miniseries format, began mulling the idea of "Crusoe" as their first international series franchise, they brought it to Silverman's attention. Because of his background as a producer and agent deeply rooted in the international marketplace, Silverman knew both Philip and Bodle. He met with them, and the deal for the series was quickly put into motion.

"It's absolutely typical that Ben is doing this, because he has an extraordinary eye for what's happening in the international market," Bodle said.

Power, which will put about $25 million into "Crusoe," has experience with big-budget productions. Its most recent project, the disaster feature thriller/mini "Flood," cost $30 million.

The company has an established network of international buyers. It regularly sells its movies and miniseries to 75-100 TV outlets worldwide.

Power already is in discussion with British broadcasters and is taking the series at MIPCOM next week.

"Crusoe" fits into Silverman's strategy of going for pre-sold easy to market properties. He put strong marketing muscle behind the network's contemporary remake "Bionic Woman," which has emerged as the breakout hit of the season so far. NBC also recently ordered a two-hour movie/backdoor pilot for "Knight Rider," an updated revival of the 1980s series.

"Crusoe" is the first series adaptation of Defoe's tale, often considered the first novel in English, in more than 40 years, since a 1964 French series, which starred Robert Hoffmann.

On the big screen, the tale was most recently revisited in 1997 with Pierce Brosnan as the famous castaway.