Broadcast networks’ infatuation with lower-license-fee internationally produced drama series, which began during the run-up to the 2007 writers strike, is entering a major new phase with NBC’s midseason scheduling of the Entertainment One-produced 22-episode drama The Firm, based on John Grisham’s novel and the Tom Cruise-starring movie. Back in 2007, two of the acquired series stockpiled by the U.S. networks as strike contingency, Flashpoint by CBS and Crusoe by NBC, aired in-season on Fridays and Saturdays, and Flashpoint even got a brief turn in the Thursday 10 PM slot when the broadcast nets ran out of originals at the height of the labor dispute. But since then, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox have largely limited lower-license-fee drama series acquisitions to summer runs. (Fox’s attempt to extend the run of such a series, The Good Guys, into the regular season backfired.) Then in April, NBC picked up The Firm based on a spec script by Lucas Reiter. Two weeks later, at NBC’s upfront presentation, the network announced The Firm as a midseason replacement to air on Sundays. And today, the straight-to-series drama was upgraded to the Thursday 10 PM slot, which for years had been considered NBC’s top drama slot, home of such iconic series as Hill Street Blues, LA Law and ER. The network muddied the waters in the past year or so by slotting reality shows/comedies in the hour, but proclaimed at its upfront in May that it plans to go back to the time period’s storied drama history with Prime Suspect. When the new cop drama fizzled, NBC moved The Firm to the primetime period.
While the circumstances are unusual — one could argue that NBC is in almost as dire straights today as it was during the writers strike — a series developed and produced outside the traditional network/studio system landing one of broadcast TV’s highest-profile time periods is a milestone for such projects by indie studios, whose number has been on the rise. Just last week, NBC gave a potential straight-to-series order to Hannibal, a drama based on the Hannibal Lecter character and penned by Bryan Fuller, which is produced by Gaumont International Television. Ironically, Reiter originally developed an adaptation of The Firm a few years ago through the traditional network development machine. The project was set up at CBS and didn’t go to pilot. Reiter then wrote a new script, which Entertainment One used to strike an international distribution pact with Sony Pictures TV Networks and a domestic one with NBC. After the pickup by NBC, CBS filed a lawsuit against Reiter and eOne, but the matter has since been settled.