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In May 2017, Sony Pictures Television gave NBC a 50 percent ownership share of Timeless to get the Shawn Ryan-produced drama a second season after the broadcast network’s surprise decision to cancel the time-travel series. Flash forward six years and Sony — the independent studio where Ryan has been based with an overall deal since 2011 — and the prolific showrunner returned to the battlefield to save another show: CBS’ SWAT.
Compared with Timeless, the negotiations over SWAT were a bit different. To start, Sony fully owned Timeless when NBC decided to cancel the series after a single season. The studio, which at the time was overseen by executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, sacrificed the lion’s share of the profits in order to keep Timeless on the air when it brought in NBC’s studio counterpart, Universal Television, as a co-producer.
With SWAT, sources say the renewal discussions began a few months ago when Sony TV chief Katherine Pope — who took over the studio last summer after departing Charter Communications — called CBS and co-producers at CBS Studios to inform them that Sony could not reduce its licensing fee below its current level for season six. Since SWAT was already a co-production between CBS Studios and Sony, that meant CBS had to increase its payment to Sony to keep the Shemar Moore-led reboot of the 1975 series of the same name on the air for a seventh season.
CBS, in the meantime, has focused on reducing overhead on its scripted programs amid broadcast’s continued declines. The cast and creatives on the CBS Studios-produced Blue Bloods accepted a 25 percent salary reduction to get a renewal for its 14th season and keep the hundreds of staffers employed on the Tom Selleck-led procedural employed. The Warner Bros. TV-produced Bob Hearts Abishola reduced its series regular cast recurring for all but its two leads, helping to trim the budget and fees CBS pays to Warner Bros. TV to air the Chuck Lorre comedy. Fox, too, turned its nose up at the $9 million per episode licensing fee for the Ryan Murphy-produced 911. Instead, ABC — whose 20th Television studio produces the show — picked up the drama. (Fox instead renewed 911: Lone Star because it costs an estimated $3 million per episode less than the flagship series.)
Sources say Sony’s Pope wanted to stop Sony from bleeding money on SWAT after CBS had successfully negotiated for a reduced licensing fee for the past few seasons.
“Then it became a game of chicken,” one source with knowledge of the negotiations surrounding SWAT tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Sources say CBS Studios wanted the time slot that SWAT occupied for one of its scripted originals, which put pressure on both Sony and CBS to make a decision. Instead, execs at Paramount Global — which owns both the broadcast network and CBS Studios — wanted to let Sony attempt to shop SWAT to other outlets with the expectation that there would be no takers for the series and the indie studio would accept CBS’ flat licensing fee offer.
“It’s not the same place; the economics are completely different,” Ryan told The Hollywood Reporter podcast TV’s Top 5 in late March when asked if broadcast TV is still the same place where the prolific showrunner first cut his teeth on shows like CBS’ Nash Bridges. “Right now, it’s up in the air whether SWAT will get picked up for a seventh season, and that has nothing to do with ratings. You would never see that situation 15 years ago. SWAT is third in the demo at CBS; there’s no reason why the show shouldn’t be picked up other than the economics of the business are changing. CBS and Sony will or will not figure out a way to economically make a season seven work.”
After a few weeks went by, CBS execs reached out to Sony with an offer to increase the show’s licensing fee for the first time in years, but only for an abbreviated 13-episode season, and Sony execs ultimately decided that the network’s offer wasn’t good enough, sources say. “It was an improvement, but it wasn’t enough of an improvement,” the source says.
CBS ultimately then told Sony it was going to announce that SWAT had been canceled after six seasons, making sure the studio had ample time to inform cast and creatives. After the May 5 cancellation news broke, Moore blasted the decision on social media and sources say Ryan, who learned of the cancellation from the press, also hit the roof. “Shawn didn’t know that there was an offer [from CBS] and nobody on the Sony side went to the producers to ask if they could do 13 episodes for the number CBS was proposing,” the source says.
An angry Ryan then went directly to CBS executives, at which point he learned that Sony rejected CBS’ offer for an abbreviated season without so much as a call to discuss it with him.
“Shawn Ryan is one of the best showrunners on the planet and he knows how to squeeze a budget better than anybody,” another source says. The presumption was that Sony declined CBS’ offer after consulting with Ryan, who also delivered Netflix’s The Night Agent via his Sony deal. That didn’t happen, sources say. Ryan ultimately informed CBS that he, in fact, could deliver a 13-episode season of SWAT for the number CBS proposed and a deal was made to renew it for an abbreviated seventh and final season.
“I’ve seen a big change in my time at Sony from when Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht wooed me over to Sony. They said, ‘We want you to do anything you want to do; we would love to get one broadcast hit out of you,’” Ryan shared on TV’s Top 5. “They targeted CBS because in 2011, if you had a CSI, NCIS or Criminal Minds, it was a gold mine. We tried with Last Resort, Beverly Hills Cop and then gave them their hit with SWAT, which now is not the gold mine that it would have been 15 years earlier for a show that ran 120 episodes on CBS. Now [Sony] really wants to be in the streaming space. The incentives in my contract are much more to sell to the streamers than to broadcast. So, it’s always been a challenge to be at an independent studio, but it’s been a challenge that I’ve relished. It is harder to sell to these places from an outside studio; it’s harder to get there and become the show that they want to get behind. Having said that, you’ve got to be better than what they could make in-house.”
While SWAT will get the opportunity to close out its story on its own terms, CBS’ decision to bring back the show had a direct impact on rookie procedural East New York. After CBS initially canceled SWAT, sources say the network went out to East New York producers Warner Bros. TV with a similar offer of a 13-episode season that would have featured a reduced licensing fee. Ultimately, CBS went with SWAT and it remains unclear if Warners was willing to accept a reduced fee for the since-canceled East New York.
As for the rest of the 2023-24 lineup, CBS just handed out series orders for a new take on Matlock starring Kathy Bates and a third show in Robert and Michelle King’s Good franchise, Elsbeth, starring Carrie Preston. Comedy Poppa’s House and the Justin Hartley-led drama Tracker also received orders (the latter was developed during pilot season 2022). The three dramas and single comedy will fill the voids on CBS’ schedule that came from the conclusion of NCIS: Los Angeles, and the East New York and True Lies cancellations.
And in a sign of how much ownership continues to matter, CBS owns or co-produces all but two shows on its schedule for next season, as Warner Bros. TV does not do co-productions on shows from comedy kingpin Chuck Lorre (Young Sheldon, Bob Hearts Abishola).
Reps for CBS and Sony Pictures Television declined to comment.
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