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“I’m looking more for quality and not so much quantity.”
That’s what Universal Television president Bela Bajaria said about her studio’s 2016 broadcast sales when speaking with The Hollywood Reporter in mid-May. Just two weeks later, her five-year run at the studio ended abruptly after several seasons of niche launches mostly on streaming outlets and an absence of legitimate hits at sister network NBC. Vertical integration now is a mandate at the broadcast networks, and the well-liked exec’s May 31 dismissal demonstrates studios are just as accountable for ensuring ownership.
Sources say NBC Entertainment’s Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke were looking for a reason to shake things up after increasingly failing to see eye-to-eye with Bajaria, and the fact that Universal-produced series accounted for just half NBC’s orders for the 2016-17 season proved as good as any. “Years ago, there was a huge emphasis to diversify a studio’s portfolio that provided to all networks, which she’s certainly done, but she failed to service her own network,” says one top TV lit agent. Adds another: “Universal has put great shows on the air, but the priority of the networks is to completely own their material. Having your great shows on other outlets, especially streaming services, is dangerous.”
Bajaria, 45, certainly was successful in selling critically acclaimed Universal fare to outside distributors — see Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Hulu’s The Path and Netflix’s Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But the only shows Universal has been able to get off the ground at NBC in recent seasons have come from legacy partner Dick Wolf. The most promising pickup for next season was Wolf’s fourth series in his Chicago franchise, Chicago Justice. This as the biggest scripted hits at the NFL- and The Voice-driven network, The Blacklist and Blindspot, hail from outside studios Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros. Television, respectively. Insiders say that narrative is far from pleasing for NBC owner Comcast.
In fact, the other broadcast networks have had more success in achieving ownership of their shows. ABC Studios — selling to Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood and new ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey after they canceled Disney-owned Agent Carter, The Muppets and Castle — bested Universal by accounting for 61 percent of ABC’s new orders. CBS’ in-house orders continue to climb, making up 69 percent of its freshman class, and Fox remains the gold standard. Fox TV Group CEOs and chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman bought an overwhelming 91 percent of new series from themselves.
The reasons for the ownership push now go beyond just the original motivation of international sales, syndication money, remake rights and a generally quicker path to profitability. The era of surging scripted output, fractured viewership and shrinking same-day ratings make so-called “stacking rights” more important than ever to pickups. (Stacking rights allow outlets to house in-season episodes on VOD and online platforms.) Studio executives speak extensively about the role deeper VOD libraries played in the pre-upfront buying blitz, a negotiation that is easier without a third-party studio involved. “The way viewers are watching TV and consuming content is changing,” says 20th Century Fox TV business operations president Howard Kurtzman. “This year, giving our own network and other networks the ability to stack their shows so that the viewer could catch up and become engaged in a show became a fundamental part of the negotiation. All of our discussions about setting up shows included a conversation about stacking.”
Vertical alignment is not just putting pressure on in-house producers. Indies Warner Bros. and Sony feel the squeeze, too. While both saw sales inch up year-over-year — WBTV was the only studio with sales to each of the five broadcasters — co-productions have become their new world order. Peter Roth’s WBTV gave up a slice of ownership to CBS to secure a pickup for its Training Day reboot, a first for a studio that has been unwilling to share financial spoils. At Sony, which on June 2 saw respected co-presidents of U.S. programming and production Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht add oversight of worldwide programming following TV chairman Steve Mosko’s exit, co-pros long have been used as a bargaining chip to get (or keep) series on the air. All five of Sony’s new series are said to be co-productions at ABC, CBS and NBC — a result of cost-benefit analyses, where even the smallest share of revenue can push a network to give the green light. “We are part of many of the co-pros on ABC this year,” says ABC Studios topper Patrick Moran. “Studios understand, when you’re at a third-party broadcast network, that [ownership] is an important initiative for everybody. We’re all working in that direction, and we’re being pretty flexible in our dealmaking. I think it’s allowed for successful partnerships.”
As for Universal, the pressure is on to reduce the number of one-and-done series like Eva Longoria’s Telenovela and the Melissa George starrer Heartbeat — each a money pit with no chance to recoup expenses. Bajaria’s replacement says a lot about where the company sees its future. NBC head of drama Pearlena Igbokwe, instrumental in the launch of The Blacklist and Blindspot, will segue to the studio side, where her top task is said to be supplying her former network with new hits. Insiders already are wondering if that means NBC now is willing to pay a premium to keep key projects in-house rather than seeing them shopped elsewhere to secure higher commitments. Notes one, “If [Universal] is going to cast away one of the most dynamic female executives, they need to figure out what that change needs to be so Pearlena doesn’t find herself in the same position.”
This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Thomas Brodie Sangster