Sony TV Execs on the 'Most Perplexing, Ill-Conceived Decision' of the Upfront (Q&A)

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Jamie Erlicht, left, and Zack Van Amburg

Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg talk about comedy's surge, the "Charlie's Angels'" pickup and the future of "Rules of Engagement."

With another TV upfront week behind us, both the broadcast networks and their suppliers have cause for optimism. In addition to a rebounding ad market expected to exceed $10 billion, many of the series presented had media buyers buzzing about a turn-around on screen as well. 

For its part, Sony Pictures Television will have three new dramas on the broadcast schedule next season: Charlie's Angels and Pan Am on ABC and Unforgettable on CBS. The studio is still waiting on a potential CBS pick-up for the Peter Knight comedy Worked Up - and perhaps a reversal on the decision to cancel first-year Fox comedy Breaking In.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Sony's presidents of U.S. programming andproduction Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht last week to talk about the rise in comedy, the big swings in drama and the most "perplexing" decision of upfront week.

THR: If you were writing the wrap-up story of upfront week, what would your headline be?

Zack Van Amburg: I think this time the energy was vastly positive. And positive for a very specific reason: it feels like the ad market has come back in a very robust way. I think the networks have mirrored that with programs that feel more upbeat. They feel brighter and bigger than ever. There was a real commitment this year to production value. We certainly saw it and felt it. Pilots that we made that had the largest license fees and the most amount of momentum inevitably were the ones that got picked up.

Overall it really feels like the broadcast networks are back. It doesn’t feel like they’re chasing the eroding audience that seems to be migrating to cable. It’s almost like they all got together and said, what can we do differently and in our way better than cable? And the answer is to do things a little bit bigger with more style, more flair and more production value. It kind of feels like that has been the theme of the week at each network.

Jamie Erlicht: The only thing I'd add is that there seems to be more of an emphasis on escapism, especially on the drama side. That’s definitely a direct reaction to what we’ve seen in the economy and the uncertainty in the world over the last couple of years. Viewers want to get away from their lives, even if it’s for an hour at a time.

THR: We've also seen a surge in comedy. Why do you think that is?

Van Amburg: We did a big study a couple of years ago --not that that’s always the best barometer by which we chose our programming strategy-- but there were some very clear indicators about about when comedy has been particularly strong historically. It tends to be when a couple of things happen. No. 1, when there’s a change of administration. No. 2, what’s the state of the economy. In down times or downward trending economies, the nation has turned to things that are lighter and brighter with their entertainment.

There’s no easier way to escape than in comedy. We also looked at the state of the country: Are we are at war or are we at peace? When you look back, there were two or three very clear moments that mirrored a lot of what’s been happening in the last couple of years. So I think the networks are just starting to catch up to that trend.

THR: How would you assess the aftermarket for comedies right now?

Erlicht: There’s a very strong marketplace for comedies. I’m sure Two and a Half Men will be worth north of $1 billion. Big Bang Theory will be worth a lot of money. Our own Rules of Engagement, which is going out now, will sell really well. There’s a real need for stations to have half hour programming and there has been an absolute drought of quality productions over the last ten years. So there’s a need and a huge market for it. The real question is that there seems to be a bit of a trend towards female-skewing comedies.

THR: Historically, female-skewing comedies have not fared well in syndication....

Erlicht: Exactly. Historically, syndication has been more male dominated. That’s going to be interesting to map out over the next couple of years.  But for quality comedies, there’s a great aftermarket and it’s a great business for us to be in.

THR: CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler said that they’re not done with comedy orders. What does that mean for Peter Knight’s Worked Up?

Van Amburg: With the Peter Knight show, everything we’re hearing is that it’s very much in the mix. When we get back from New York, we’re going to be sitting down with Nina and talking about the future of that show. It was a very well executed pilot that tested very well and we hope it gets a shot.

THR: You had a few strong pilots that didn’t get picked up. Which one were you most surprised and disappointed by?

Van Amburg: Every single one of that didn’t go. That’s like asking us to choose our favorite child.

Erlicht: We love all of them. Look, we had a very strong drama year. Strategically, we set out to expand our portfolio. We want to be producing drama, comedy –single camera and multi-camera—and reality. This year we wanted to make sure we had a lot of momentum in the broadcast drama business and to get three out of the four of our dramas picked up was a very rewarding experience. Our strategy in terms of big writers, big concepts and, frankly, putting a lot of money on screen, paid off with the support of big license fees and the support of our international business. We were able to able to put those resources into producing big, high quality dramas.

THR: How about the biggest head-scratcher?

Van Amburg: From my vantage point, the most perplexing, ill-conceived decision that we saw this year was the Breaking In decision. That seems to be an ongoing dialogue, but that was definitely the one that seemed the oddest.

THR: What is the likelihood that we will see that show return next season?

Van Amburg: We’re meeting with the network . It’s hard to tell if saner heads have prevailed, or if it’s just sort of part and parcel with trying to be a good partner. We don’t know. Hopefully. The audience seems to want it.

THR: Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has been positive about the show and the need to have patience with comedies….

Van Amburg: That’s what we thought too until he called us. The lesson in that is we should not have answered the phone. 

THR: Next season, Rules of Engagement will air on Saturdays. How do you feel about the move?

Van Amburg: Listen, CBS gives a very convincing and compelling speech that we hope is true. Les [Moonves] and Nina have always been incredibly strategic in rebuilding the network and, as Nina puts it, ‘reloading year in and year out' with hit shows. The speech that we got that really makes some sense is that all of the other networks have retreated; there is an available audience that they’re already reaching with original programming and they think this is an extension of that. It’s always a scary experiment with something that’s so mature and primed to go into syndication as Rules of Engagement is. We finally really felt like we got our fair shot to triumph with 22 episodes on the network this past season, so moving around is always an interesting journey for a show and one filled with a certain amount of anxiety. 

Twitter: @LaceyVRose