Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, Aaron Spelling produced seven hours of programming a week on ABC, a third of the network’s total primetime schedule.
Now he has successors in fellow drama series super-producers Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf. Like Spelling, all three are also creators, and like Spelling, they each dominate the field with five drama series on one network.
With a new series pickup for Riverdale and a move of Supergirl from CBS to the CW, Greg Berlanti is behind five series on the CW, which is one-third (33%) of the network’s lineup next year. (His company also produces NBC’s Blindspot, which returns for a second season next fall.) If all of his series land on the CW’s fall schedule, Berlanti will control 50% of it.
Dick Wolf expanded his Chicago franchise to four series with the pickup of Chicago Justice. He also has Law & Order: SVU for a quintet of dramas on the network, plus a series order by NBC for a reality Law & Order: You the Jury spinoff, with an anthology offshoot, Law & Order: True Crime, on fast track development.
Shonda Rhimes’ company Shondaland is behind five drama series on ABC, with the newly picked up Romeo & Juliet sequel Still Star-Crossed joining returning series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder and The Catch. Half of ABC’s returning series next year come from Shondaland.
If we don’t count Saturday — since the broadcast networks no longer program the night with original entertainment programming — Wolf and Rhimes could be in charge of as much as 28% of the NBC and ABC schedule, respectively, if all of their drama series are on at the same time.
At a time when it is increasingly hard to get shows to break through the clutter and stick, Wolf, Berlanti and Rhimes have been successful in adding shows to build a network portfolio. For Berlanti, it’s a superhero universe at the CW. For Wolf, it is a franchise with Chicago at NBC. And for Rhimes, it is a brand with TGIT. When a new show of theirs is picked up, it gets instant recognition as being a member of the producers’ roster of shows.
Wolf and Berlanti have built cohesive universes through constant crossovers. Wolf, who originated the crossover concept with Law & Order and Homicide years ago, has argued that the casts of his Chicago shows are so fully integrated that all should be considered one ensemble that should be recognized by the SAG Awards.
Berlanti just made the first-of-its-kind series regular deal with Wentworth Miller that is not tied to one show, but the entire Berlanti CW superhero universe.
And Rhimes has taken cross-promotion to a new level, with the stars of her TGIT series appearing together and teasing each other’s shows. Rhimes also has harnessed the power of social media engagement with fans in a way no other showrunner has been able to.
For the networks, given the extremely high failure rate in broadcast TV, betting on proven producers like Wolf, Rhimes and Berlanti is a way to mitigate the risk, to make as safe a bet as one can make in this business.
That has given a rise to the new crop of uber producers who know their network’s brand extremely well and continue to deliver. Why call anyone else?