On the heels of the “vertically integrated” upfronts last year, where the networks went heavily for owned series, program ownership further strengthened its grip on pickup decisions at the 2016 upfronts. It shared center stage with the issue of in-season stacking rights, which too has become increasingly important to the broadcast networks.
CBS owns or co-owns all 10 of its new scripted series for next season. ABC owns or co-owns 9 out of 10 new series. Fox fully owns 9 out of 10 new series. NBC owns or co-owns all but three new series, 9 out of 12, and I hear that was largely by choice.
Still, despite the emphasis on shows from the networks’ own studios, it was new series from an independent studio, Sony TV’s dramas Notorious on ABC and Timeless on NBC and comedy Kevin Can Wait on CBS, that got the plum opening slot at the networks’ upfront presentations, along with premium slots on the schedule — behind Grey’s Anatomy (Notorious), behind The Voice on Monday (Timeless) and behind The Big Bang Theory before anchoring Monday night (Kevin Can Wait). (Sony TV also has spinoff The Blacklist: Redemption on NBC and comedy Imaginary Mary on ABC for midseason)
Notorious, Kevin Can Wait and Imaginary Mary were co-productions with the networks from the pilot stage, while I hear NBC secured ownership of close to 50% on Timeless as it was getting picked up to series, with the lofty time slot factoring into the agreement. (I hear the network also owns 25% of Sony TV’s The Blacklist and the upcoming spinoff. None of these stakes are public.)
This shows that in the new era of ramped-up vertical integration, indie studios still can score big with shows the networks want, while also illustrating the concessions they have to make in the realities of today’s TV business.
Speaking at an investor conference today, CBS Corp. chairman Les Moonves praised Sony Pictures TV chairman Steve Mosko for understanding the rules when he pitched James’ sitcom to CBS. The “first thing” Mosko said was “‘We get that to get on it’s got to be a 50-50 partnership,” Moonves said. “I said ‘done, you’ve got a deal.’ “
CBS traditionally has been the most aggressive in the ownership arena. Starting in the late 1990s, the network would automatically ask for co-production on most projects, ending up co-owning lucrative series that it didn’t develop such as ABC Studios’ Criminal Minds franchise.
With the international marketplace and domestic SVOD “exploding,” “having ownership is a huge, huge difference — and it does affect everything we do,” Moonves said today, articulating the driver behind the networks’ current mandate to air shows they have financial interest in. He was blunt — “A show that’s 100% owned [by CBS] will generally get a better time period and generally will be more important to the network.”
NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt did not go that far. “We certainly take into consideration ownership issues when we decide where a show goes on schedule, but at the end of day, we are looking for the best shows to get the best places on the schedule,” he said during the network’s upfront call earlier this week. “It is an advantage if the shows come from our studio, but we wouldn’t do that at the detriment of our schedule.”
Increasing program ownership has been a major goal for CBS. “We stand to increase the amount of primetime programming that we own,” Moonves told investors at the company’s May 3 earnings call. “We are once again looking at owning about 80% of the scripted series on our schedule next year.” Indeed, CBS will own or co-own 84% of its scripted series next season, up from just over 60% last season.
The situation is similar at the other Big 4 nets. Fox leads the pack with all-time high 88% ownership of its series, including event series. What’s more, all of its owned series are fully owned, coming from sibling 20th Century Fox TV. The other networks all have co-productions/co-ownerships. NBC is at 82% owned/co-owned series; ABC at 77%, including limited series.
At the May 3 earnings call, Moonves unwittingly revealed a milestone in program ownership — indie major Warners Bros. TV agreeing to share ownership of one of its pilots. “Out of 16 pilots, we have ownership in 15 of them,” Moonves said.
Out of the 16 CBS pilots this year, three pilots from outside studios had been officially announced as solely owned by those studios, WBTV’s drama Training Day and comedy What Goes Around Comes Around and Universal TV’s comedy The Kicker. I hear the two comedies had agreements in place to become co-productions if they went to series, while Training Day, based on Warner Bros. IP, the Antoine Fuqua movie, had no co-ownership arrangement at the time.
Now we have what is believed to be the first WBTV scripted series that has network co-ownership. I hear that, after difficult pickup negotiations, CBS got a stake in Training Day, the only of the three pilots mentioned to go to series. Its size is unclear (and undisclosed publicly), with sources speculating that it is around 50%.
At the conference today, Moonves said that of the six new series CBS has for fall, “we own 100% of three of the shows, 50% of two of them, and 70% of another one.” The fully owned ones are CBS Studios’ comedies Man with a Plan and The Great Indoors and drama Bull. Kevin Can Wait and drama Bunker Hill are 50-50 co-productions with Sony TV and Universal TV, respectively. The remaining series, 70% owned by CBS, is believed to be MacGyver. CBS recently entered a partnership with Lionsgate to jointly exploit the title, with CBS taking lead (and majority ownership) on the TV show and Lionsgate on a feature.
How important ownership is to CBS? When it cannot secure it at its terms, the network is willing to not pick up a project, as it did with the Matt Nix crime drama, whose pilot order fell through at the last minute after CBS couldn’t come to a co-production agreement with its producer 20th TV.
Speaking of 20th TV, Fox and ABC have engaged in co-production trading the past two seasons. Last season, 20th TV gave ABC Studio half of its ABC drama pilot Runner, getting in exchange half of ABC Studios’ Fox comedy pilot Grandfathered, which went to series. This year, the two companies did it again, with 20th TV coming in as co-producer on ABC Studios’ Courteney Cox Fox comedy pilot and ABC Studios joining 20th TV on Speechless. This time, the ABC pilot went forward.
Besides Training Day, the other four newly picked up WBTV series on the Big 4, drama Lethal Weapon at Fox — the only one of the five to land on the fall schedule — drama Time After Time on ABC and comedies Powerless and Trial & Error at NBC — remained solely owned by the studio. (WBTV also has new fall drama Frequency and midseason entry Riverdale on the CW, which Warner Bros, co-owns with CBS.)
Lethal Weapon and Time After Time are the only new shows on Fox and ABC that are not owned or co-owned by those networks. I hear in both cases the networks didn’t make a play or pursue a stake particularly aggressively — in part because both shows are based on underlying Warners IP and, in the case of Lethal Weapon, Fox landed it in a competitive situation, giving the studio leverage.
I hear NBC did not press for ownership on WBTV comedies Trial & Error and Powerless in part because there is a limited upside for single-camera comedies in the after-market. As for NBC’s third new series solely owned by an outside studio, the 20th TV-produced dramedy This Is Us, I hear there was an ownership offer on the table from the studio but NBC opted to just license the series. The decision to not take a stake was made based on the experience NBC had with a similar character-driven ensemble series that the network owned, the critically-praised Parenthood. The rational is that such hourlong shows tend not to have much ancillary upside and, as their casts grow, they become more expensive. (This Is Us has been a standout this week, with its trailer amassing a staggering 25 million views in four days on Facebook alone.)
Ownership plays as big a role in picking up new series as it does in renewing existing ones. Moonves today noted that Elementary, which CBS owns 100%, last year “made approximately an $80 million profit for the corporation,” while Person Of Interest, owned by Warner Bros. TV, “broke even.”
“As I’m looking at my new schedule, guess which show got renewed? It became really self evident.”
Elementary was picked up for a fifth season, while Person of Interest was canceled after 5.
The last two years mark networks’ strongest drive for program ownership since the abolishment of fin-syn rules in 1993 that allowed the networks to own their shows.
“At what point does this become illegal, and we go back to fin-syn?” one observer lamented.
Another issue that complicated negotiations between broadcast networks and outside studios this year was in-season stacking rights. NBC, along with ABC, were particularly aggressive in pursuing in-season stacking rights on all new shows, which allow nets to stream all episodes from a series’ current season on its platforms, not just the standard “rolling five” most recent ones. Both networks are believed to have succeeded after some tough, down-to-the wire negotiations with Sony TV and 20th TV.
“This is the future of our business; stacking is important to us,” Greenblatt said earlier this week. “It is the order of the day.”
I hear CBS, which has fewer heavily serialized dramas for which stacking is crucial, has been less aggressive on the issue, but it too has started to require in-season stacking rights. I hear the network got them on newly renewed sophomore comedy Life In Pieces, fully owned by 20th TV, and has approached other outside studios with deal proposals that are believed to involve the new SVOD platform CBS All Access.
I hear Fox quietly started requiring in-season stacking rights on its new series last year, securing all. The network also has those rights on its new series for next season, including on its only new show from an outside studio, WBTV’s Lethal Weapon. The episodes of all current Fox series are currently available on the network’s web site, except for WBTV’s Gotham, which had a pre-existing exclusive SVOD deal with Netflix. ABC joined the fray in a major way this past March, announcing what the network called an “unprecedented” in-season stacking rights deal with Warner Bros.
The broadcast networks argue that owning these rights allows viewers to catch up on shows and discover new ones, thus boosting TV viewership. There is a downside for studios — they will likely not be able to command top dollar in licensing the shows to SVOD platforms like Netflix, which insists on exclusivity. Still, the studios get compensated by the broadcast networks for the in-season stacking rights and the strategy could help their shows stay the air longer, something they can monetize in other ways.
As the networks push for ownership and now in-season stacking rights, where does that leave independent studios and vertically integrated studios looking to sell to other networks? They have to adapt to the new realities.
Besides rare “undeniable” properties that networks would do anything to have, accepting co-ownership and stacking rights terms seems to be the (only) way to get a show picked up, given a good time slot and kept on the air. Because of the proliferation of digital platforms worldwide, international distribution revenue is going through the roof. International rights is something outside studios, including Sony TV, Uni TV, WBTV and 20th TV, have successfully fought to retain on their shows that share ownership with a non-affiliated network.
And if they are potentially leaving some domestic SVOD money on the table when selling in-season stacking rights to the networks, if they are sacrificing some back-end by taking co-production, there still could be a big upside if the moves help their shows find more viewers and stay on the air longer. The international market has become so big, each new season of a drama series brings tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in license fees, so keeping the studio’s pipeline stuffed with new episodes of existing shows is crucial.