In October 2001, then-Sony Corp of America CEO Howard Stringer declared that the network production business “doesn’t make any sense anymore,” effectively closing the studio’s primetime TV division, Columbia TriStar Television. Overall deals were dissolved, executives were let go, and the development slate was trashed in a move Sony projected would save it more that $100 million a year. Sony‘s syndication TV chief Steve Mosko was tapped to head a stripped-down TV unit, Columbia TriStar Domestic Television (renamed Sony Pictures TV in 2002), which consisted primarily of syndication/daytime and modest international operations.
Today, 12 years later, Stringer’s successor Michael Lynton announced that the company will make “a significant shift in emphasis from motion pictures to higher-margin television.” This is Sony’s biggest public acknowledgement to date of the growing significance of its TV business, which has been rapidly expanding during the past decade, mainly under the radar. Sony does not separate its movie and TV revenues, but it has been well known that TV has contributed well over 50% of Sony Entertainment’s operating income for the past couple of years, with some indicating that the TV group’s contribution may be over 60%, especially with the film division going through a rough time. While there have been profit stalwarts, like Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy!, Days Of Our Lives, The Young & The Restless and the Seinfeld off-network rights, there also have been new areas of growth. The biggest revenue driver has been Sony’s international TV networks, which have expanded to 127 channels in 150 countries, up from 78 and 83 a decade ago.
As the biggest profit generator likely for the entire Sony Entertainment, the international network group is likely to get the lion’s share of the additional resources the company will be committing to its TV operations, to go toward new investments and growing the existing channels. But TV production also is expected to get a boost. After the bloodbath of 2001, it took awhile for Sony to get back in the network business. The studio took a different approach than the one that got it into financial trouble in the first place — signing a lot of pricey overall deals and spending a ton on development and pilots to support them with little to show for it in terms of on-air series. Burned by the volume network business, Sony forged its way into the then-uncharted world of basic cable original programming with FX’s The Shield, which it distributed internationally, Rescue Me, Damages and Justified and AMC’s Breaking Bad. It gradually returned to network TV with modest hits such as Rules Of Engagement and Community.