It was 1999, the height of the cold war among the broadcast networks. Following the 1995 elimination of the fin-syn rules, which allowed networks to begin producing their own series, ABC, CBS and NBC started building up their in-house production arms with one mandate — to churn out product the nets would own. Cross-pollinating was considered almost heretic. Then in 1999, an ABC-based company, Jerry Bruckheimer TV, didn’t fold after getting a “no” from the network on its CSI pitch, instead setting the forensic drama at rival CBS. But vertical integration got in the way, with ABC deciding it wouldn’t be prudent to subsidize a rival by deficit financing the newly picked-up series — a $1 billion blunder for Disney as CSI went on to become a global hit. The last-minute pullout by ABC that left CBS scrambling put extra chill on the networks’ willingness to buy from the in-house production company of another network. (Fox sibling 20th Century Fox TV had long established itself as a major studio selling to everyone.)
Fast forward to 2014 when a whopping 10 projects from ABC Studios (5), Universal TV (3) and CBS TV Studios (2) have received series or pilot orders at rival broadcast networks so far, with pickups still underway. Here is how we got here. The ice among the broadcasters started to thaw a little in the mid-2000s. ABC’s in-house studio landed another hit on CBS with drama Criminal Minds, which it stayed with, and NBC’s production arm fielded a couple of short-lived series including Worst Week for CBS and Sons And Daughters for ABC. During the 2011 pilot season, there were two pilots from ABC’s, CBS’ or NBC’s production arms at rival networks: Weekends At Bellevue at Fox from Universal TV’s predecessor Universal Media Studios, and Ringer at CBS from ABC Studios. (Fox and UMS had an existing relationship via Fox’s hit drama House, sold by then-independent Universal Television just before its merger with NBC, while ABC Studios pulled out when Ringer moved to CBS sibling the CW.) Later that year, the new NBC regime under chairman Bob Greenblatt reverted to the Universal TV moniker that had been synonymous with independence and announced it would begin supplying all networks, a strategy that has been spearheaded by Uni TV EVP Bela Bajaria. The following season, the studio landed two pilots at outside broadcast networks — The Mindy Project at Fox and the Louis CK/Spike Feresten comedy at CBS, with the former going to series — while ABC Studios had off-cycle NBC drama pilot Beautiful People. Last year, there were three cross-network pilots: Fox comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine from Uni TV, CBS drama Intelligence from ABC Studios, and NBC drama Hatfields & McCoys also from ABC Studios. Impressively, 2 out of 3, Brooklyn and Intelligence, got series orders.
This past summer, ABC Studios and CBS TV Studios too made a company decision to open up development to non-affiliated broadcast networks, something ABC Studios had done sporadically but CBS TV Studios had never attempted. What’s more, while in the past Uni TV, ABC Studios and CBS Studios would only shop projects rejected by their own networks, the studios started taking their hottest properties out on the open market — like was the case with Uni TV’s Brooklyn last season and the Matt Hubbard/Tina Fey comedy this season, both ultimately going to Fox. Sometimes, the studios would even develop projects strictly for outside networks. The result is a boom of series and pilot orders to projects from another network’s in-house studio this year. With CBS still in the early stages of pilot pickups, we already have 10 such projects greenlighted, more than triple the number of pickups last season. What’s more, this year’s orders include two straight to series: ABC’s 13-episode untitled David O. Russell/Susannah Grant drama, produced by CBS TV Studios, and Fox’s 6-episode order to Uni TV’s comedy Mulaney (Like The Mindy Project, that project was originally developed for NBC). Additionally, the Hubbard/Fey pilot, ABC Studios drama Red Band Society and the CBS TV Studios-produced comedy pilot Sober Companion, all at Fox, are being geared toward series under the network’s new development model, which means that last season’s tally of two new broadcast series from a rival net’s production arm will likely easily be topped this year for a new record. Uni TV is posting a studio best with three green lights, for Mulaney, Hubbard/Fey and drama pilot Exposed at ABC, and is eying multiple new series for the first time. And, in its first season selling to outside broadcast networks under president David Stapf, CBS Studios is looking to go 2-fo-2, with both of its projects on track to series.
Also in its maiden cycle as dedicated supplier to competing networks, ABC Studios has amassed five pilot orders so far, drama Red Band Society and comedies Fifth Wheel, The Pro starring Rob Lowe, and Mason Twins at NBC and Save The Date at CBS. The studio has a couple of other half-hour projects with big commitments, so the tally could go up. This marks a major breakthrough for ABC Studios which, as far as anyone can remember, had not landed a comedy pilot at another broadcast network before. This was the result of an effort by new ABC Studios boss Patrick Moran in his first season at the helm of the studio, and ABC Studios’ head of comedy Amy Hartwick. Both Moran and Hartwick come from 20th TV, which, while aligned with Fox, supplies all major broadcast networks, and the duo adopted a similar model. The strategy change is helping ABC Studios, Universal TV and CBS Studios to expand and grow their business independently from their sister networks as well as become more attractive for big-name talent who tend to gravitate to studios that sell to everyone.
Shows from independent studios like Sony TV and Warner Bros TV and 20th TV (at nets other than Fox), once considered the stepchildren of the networks that never get the same love as owned series when it comes to time slot assignments and renewals, have risen to the top of the totem poll, with a drama from Sony TV, The Blacklist, leading the scripted pack at NBC; a comedy from Warner Bros TV, The Big Bang Theory, leading the charge at CBS (and all of broadcast TV); and 20th TV-produced comedy Modern Family topping the ABC ratings. Universal TV, ABC Studios and CBS TV Studios may soon join them in generating a mega-hit for a non-sibling broadcast network (all three are also actively producing for cable). Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been a poster child for border-crossing product, recently landing two Golden Globes for Fox, which gave the freshman a prize very rarely bestowed on an unaffiliated show: an airing after the Super Bowl on Sunday where it will be paired with 20th TV-produced New Girl.