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.
Now SPT boasts the biggest new series this fall, NBC’s The Blacklist; the reigning Best Drama Emmy winner and cable ratings smash/pop culture phenomenon, AMC’s Breaking Bad; ABC’s reality mainstay Shark Tank; and hot Showtime newcomer Masters of Sex. Not all of its efforts have worked — its NBC comedy Welcome To The Family was cancelled, joining high-profile recent casualties Last Resort, Charlie’s Angels and Pan Am, and The Michael J. Fox Show is struggling, but SPT’s series portfolio has been growing steadily — from 14 shows 10 years ago to 38 on 16 networks now. (The company also is making shows through its 18 production companies around the world.) During the past year, the studio has made an aggressive move in the lucrative direct-to-series business. Following the 22-episode order for Michael J. Fox last fall, Sony has landed series orders for Outlander at Starz, Helix at Syfy, KZK project at Netflix, Battle Creek at CBS and Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul at AMC. The vast range of buyers for those series underlines SPT’s advantage of being an independent TV studio that sells everywhere.
Being independent has its shortcomings too — Sony has been forced in the past to give up partial ownership on series in exchange for a pickup or a good slot and, all things equal, its series are sometimes more prone to cancellations than those owned by the network making the decisions. But their underdog status has driven Mosko and his team to hustle, like making that four-series deal at NBC in May using the heat surrounding Blacklist; keeping Rules on the air for 100 episodes; bringing back several cancelled series, most recently Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva; and finding ways to make money-losing series profitable, like bringing international partners to CBS’ Unforgettable when it got it un-cancelled and moving Damages from FX to DirecTV post-cancellation.
While expanding, SPT also has kept expenses in check. Since the 2001 budget slash, the company went through another round of streamlining when it consolidated its domestic and international operations in 2004. And it 2010, it moved in to pare down significantly its pod deals. As a result, I hear SPT is not going to be as affected by the $250M-plus in cuts Sony Pictures vows to make through 2016 as other divisions, like features. As part of the cost-cutting measures, Sony is reducing significantly its movie output in 2014 and cutting first-look deals. While not as dramatic as the scaling back on the TV side in 2001, there are parallels to be drawn. It will be interesting to see if the cutbacks will be followed by a growth spurt on the film side the way in happened in TV over the past decade.