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Upfronts 2021: Studio Chiefs On Broadcast Comedies’ Viability, Light Fare’s Rise Post-Covid & Pandemic’s Permanent Effect On Development & Production

For the first time since start of the Big Four era in broadcast TV, two of the four networks, NBC and Fox, will have no live-action comedies on the fall schedule amid a challenging period for the genre and efforts to redraw the decades-old broadcast comedy model for the streaming age. Meanwhile, the networks are leaning heavily on franchise-driven, linear viewing-friendly procedural dramas with new installments of NBC’s Law & Order and CBSNCIS, CSI and FBI, as well as aspirational fare such as Fox’s ballet dramedy The Big Leap.

These were some of the major takeaways from the 2021 broadcast upfronts, which capped a pandemic-impacted two-year development cycle that saw more off-cycle pilot production and straight-to-series orders than we have ever seen.

In interviews with Deadline, the heads of the major TV studios shared their take on the upfronts and 2021-22 broadcast schedules, networks’ newfound openness to outside suppliers, their (mostly) symbiotic relationship with in-house streamers, what Covid-related changes to TV development and production could be permanent, and how the drive for more diversity and inclusion is shaping studios’ development and overall deal strategy.

Nets Warming Up To Indies, Cooling Off On Comedy

One shift, which started more than a year ago and was likely accelerated by the pandemic, involves the vertical integration loosening its grip on the broadcast business.

Once heavily favoring fully owned series, amid falling linear ratings and diminishing off-network/international returns, the broadcast networks have become more open to “leasing” versus “owning,” especially on series with limited downstream potential like most comedies.

Outside of NBC, all new live-action comedy series that premiered on the broadcast networks this season came from an outside studio. Home Economics and Call Your Mother at ABC, B Positive and United States of Al at CBS, and Call Me Kat at Fox. All but Call Your Mother have been renewed for a second season.

“I do feel that there is certainly an openness to working with third parties in broadcast,” said Channing Dungey, chairman of Warner Bros Television Group, the only studio to have a series on all five networks. (It actually has at least three series on each network, including unscripted fare.)

“What’s happened most recently is that, as the vertically integrated conglomerates are prioritizing streaming a little bit more, the broadcasters for the first time in several years have been more open to third-party suppliers in a very meaningful way,” Lionsgate TV chairman Kevin Beggs said.

Lionsgate TV’s three 2020 pilots, all comedy, went to series: Home Economics at ABC, Ghosts at CBS and This Country at Fox. All are co-productions with the network’s affiliated studios. WBTV also saw all of its produced 2020-21 comedy pilots — B Positive and United States of Al at CBS, Abbot Elementary at ABC and Pivoting at Fox — go to series. Except for the Chuck Lorre shows, WBTV’s comedies are co-productions.

“We are working with our fellow studios to make that work, sometimes that requires very strategic dealmaking,” Dungey said. “I have found that people are willing to be collaborative. We ended up striking a very positive deal for both of our companies with 20th TV on Abbot.

Beggs also spoke of “essentially reinventing some of the models that can make it more favorable for both parties” as key for the indie’s studio’s sudden foray into broadcast.

Ghosts
“Ghosts” CBS

One indie studio that put the breaks on producing comedy series for broadcast is Sony Pictures TV, which is behind the hit ABC comedy series The Goldbergs. Last summer, the studio informally notified networks that it will not be selling comedies within the current financial model, which was created at a time television viewing choices consisted of three over-the-air broadcast networks. At the time of Sony TV’s decision, the studio had one comedy pilot, Call Your Mother, which went to series and was canceled after a brief midseason run riddled by frequent preemptions.

“We are cautiously observing what is going on in the broadcast side, but right now the standard broadcast deficit model does not make sense for us still, so if we can develop a different broadcast model, I think it would be something we would absolutely entertain and get back into that business,” Sony Pictures TV Studios president Jeff Frost said this week.

He noted that “There have been discussions along those lines” and while “we haven’t been able to break through for anything that makes sense for us yet, they are definitely headed in the right direction.” Like his indie studio counterparts, he did acknowledge that “we are seeing more willingness for the networks to work with outside suppliers,” pointing to the straight-to-series orders Sony TV received at Fox for dramas The Accused and Fantasy Island. 

But, along with that, networks this year have gotten “more aggressive on digital, taking more digital rights, owning it for multiple platforms especially as some of these broadcast networks now have AVOD platforms that they are affiliated with,” Frost said. “It’s taking rights that chip away at our ability to monetize them downstream.”

Dungey also acknowledged the challenges making the broadcast model work for comedy in the current environment but stressed that the studio is staying in the broadcast comedy business.

“I still feel bullish about broadcast, particularly in the drama space; comedy is harder right now,” she said. “The market internationally for comedy is more challenging than it has been in the past but we are doing quite well with all of our Chuck Lorre shows that we do for CBS, so I think we are still going to be in that game for some time to come.”

CBS Studios president David Stapf, 20th Television president Karey Burke, Universal TV president Erin Underhill as well as ABC Signature president Johnnie Davis, who comes from comedy development background, all stressed their commitment to the comedy genre.

“You have to be strategic in what comedies you’re developing, and make sure that they’re cost-effective,” Stapf cautioned. “Multi-cams are more cost-effective than single-camera, but we’re not going to run away from single-camera either. We just have to be smart about the efficiencies that we build in as to how to shoot it so it isn’t just cost-ineffective.”

CBS Studios produced two comedy presentations for CBS this season: the multi-camera Smallwood, which was picked up to series, and the single-camera Sarah Cooper/Cindy Chupack project, which wasn’t.

There are only two new comedy series on the fall schedule, Ghosts and ABC’s The Wonder Years, from 20th TV. The studio also received a series order from ABC for comedy pilot Maggie. ABC opted for all single-camera new comedy series, passing on its multi-camera prospects including the Alec Baldwin/Kelsey Grammer series (from 20th TV) and pilot Black Don’t Crack (ABC Signature).

“We are absolutely in love with The Wonder Years and Maggie and Abbot Elementary, both of which are midseason, and I believe, as we’ve seen over the course of decades, the different genres ebb and flow in terms of their popularity with the audience, but I don’t believe the comedy genre is going away on broadcast television in any way,” Burke said. “A show like The Wonder Years is not a traditional comedy. It’s actually quite dramatic and occupies a lane that’s different than what we’ve seen before, and I think it will resonate because of that, because it feels like an evolution and not cookie-cutter, and that’s what the form needs to keep doing, being challenged to evolve.”

The Wonder Years
“The Wonder Years” ABC/Erika Doss

Davis noted that before Modern Family, which he developed at 20th TV, launched with a splash, broadcast TV had been ruled by multi-camera sitcoms.

“That was really what was in the air, and then all of a sudden Modern Family came and then you had The Middle and you had Fresh off the Boat and all those single-camera well-written family comedies, so I feel optimistic,” he said. “Comedy’s really hard and it’s subjective, and it’s all about that voice but our foot is firmly on the gas pedal.”

Underhill said she is not alarmed by NBC’s decision to have no comedies on the fall schedule for the first time in three decades and instead hold the network’s half-hours — all produced by Universal TV — or midseason, when it will have the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

“NBC is showing their commitment to our comedies by launching them off of some of the biggest TV events of the year,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to ride the wave of the Olympics and Super Bowl?”

Expanding Franchises & Diversity, Ramping Up Aspirational Content

One thing there is a lot of on the fall schedule is franchise procedurals, with Dick Wolf adding new offshoots to his Law & Order and FBI franchises and controlling three consecutive nights of broadcast TV with an all-FBI Tuesday lineup on CBS, as well as One Chicago Wednesday and Law & Order Thursday on NBC. Wolf’s slate, which established a standard for an integrated character universe and frequent crossovers that is being adopted across broadcast, is produced by Uni TV, where he has been based for a long time.

“As you can imagine, we’re elated at the success Dick Wolf’s shows are having across the board, and that’s an area we’ll continue to explore with Dick and his team,” Underhill said.

The FBI franchise is co-produced by CBS Studios, which also is behind the NCIS and CSI franchises, both of which will also be introducing new installments this coming fall with NCIS: Hawai’i and CSI: Vegas.

“When you create a new show out of a beloved franchise, or you bring back nostalgic, beloved IP, you can’t just rely on the name and hope you get viewers. You really got to deliver on the creative, and what’s been so exciting about CSI: Vegas and NCIS: Hawai’i is, the writers and casting has really stepped up, to where they’re going to, the mantra is, these need to appeal to people that have never heard of NCIS or CSI,” Stapf said.

NCIS: Hawai’i is the first NCIS series to have a female lead and a star, Vanessa Lachey, who has Asian heritage.

It is one of a number of new series for next season that have characters of color front and center including ABC’s The Wonder Years (20th TV), Queens (ABC Signature) and Abbott Elementary (WBTV/20th TV), Fox’s Our Kind of People (20th TV/Fox Entertainment) and The Cleaning Lady (WBTV/Fox Entertainment), and the CW’s Naomi and All American: Homecoming. Also headlined by non-white leads are Fox’s summer series Fantasy Island (Sony TV) and NBC drama pilot At That Age (Uni TV).

“I personally am encouraged in looking at some of the new shows that have been ordered across the board, including on our own slate,” said Dungey, who, as an ABC executive, helped the breakthrough of on-screen representation years ago with such shows as Scandal, the first broadcast drama in 35 years to have a Black woman as its lead. “I feel really positive about the fact that we have more diverse shows, more inclusive shows. I look at something like Abbot Elementary, which Quinta Brunson is toplining, and are super proud and excited about. The Cleaning Lady at Fox, which has a fantastic newcomer, Elodie Yung, an Asian woman, as our lead.”

Abbott Elementary
“Abbot Elementary” ABC/Prashant Gupta

Dungey, Burke, Davis, Stapf, Underhill and Frost all underscored their companies’ deep commitment to diversity and inclusion in development, casting as well as overall deal strategy, working to attract, cultivate and retain authentic underrepresented voices. All of them also acknowledged that, as Burke put it using the popular phrase, “this is a movement, not a moment,” and they can — and have to — do better.

Increased inclusivity is a thread that connects many of the new offerings, along with an uplifting, optimistic tone as the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I believe the need for escape, hope, unity, positive portrayals of family and friendship and inclusion are winning the day, and I think broadcast television, in particular ABC, is built for that,” Burke said. “I think that we are all collectively nationally experiencing a moment in which we want to go towards the light. We are turning our back on darkness, and we want new lenses on storytelling that are more hopeful and positive.”

While he remains open to any great idea that comes in the door, “I think that, coming out of this pandemic, we’re going to see shows — my favorite shows always have these ingredients anyway — with more joy, optimism, romance, hopefulness,” Davis said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be drama and everything inside all of that, but I think it’s about looking up to the sky and all of us collectively feeling like the future is bright and how can we reflect that in our shows.”

ABC Signature has a drama hopeful at ABC that is escapist/aspirational fare personified with literal blue skies — fairytale drama pilot Epic, from the creators of Once Upon a Time, which is currently filming in Ireland.

“I do think broadcast networks – and quite frankly all networks because of Covid – are looking for lighter and more uplifting fare. That seems to be resonating with their audiences more so than some of the heavier content we may have seen in the past,” Frost said. “We have definitely seen more interest from buyers along those lines.”

While not the sole reason, he said the trend was “an important aspect” of Fox’s decision to order the studio’s Fantasy Island reboot.

“We’ll always strive to tell a multitude of different stories – procedurals, serialized shows and escapist fare,” Underhill said.  “There seems to be a desire for all of it on broadcast as well as on other platforms. I hate to go in one direction that seems popular because that’s when you see something very different strike big.”

TV Production Post-Pandemic

After an unprecedented six-month industry shutdown because of the pandemic, TV production started coming back last fall with strict Covid protocols. While those restrictions will eventually begin relaxing as infection levels plummet across the country, some of the aspects of TV production — and the mind-set approaching the making of shows — may have been altered for good.

“I believe going forward you will see a sustained commitment to health and safety on set — how we deal with big crowds on set, how we deal with food and water on set, and how we deal with making people feel comfortable and safe in what are always very, very populous environments,” Burke said. “I think there are a lot of learnings that came out of this that will make sets safer places going forward.”

Added Dungey, “I don’t think we will ever go back to a huge craft-service table where everybody is digging into the M&Ms with their bare hands which, if you think about in broad strokes, wasn’t the best plan from the beginning.”

Adjusting to Covid was a short-term financial hit that may have long-term financial benefits for studios.

“What we learned through Covid is that you can produce more efficiently with potentially fewer people on set and utilize resources in a way we hadn’t utilized them in the past,” Frost said. “That’s the great learning that we will definitely take forward and become more efficient with production in the future.”

Davis agrees. “We were really flexible and nimble. If you imagine, a show like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s a bustling ER room. Doctors coming in and out, nurses, patients coming in, love scenes. But yet we figured it out, and we figured it out with less people on the set. We figured it out with making creative deals to get this going.”

He gave some examples of areas we could see lasting changes. “As we look at what modern production looks like, I think we’ve learned a lot. Does that mean owning more of our own studios, our own warehouses, use of LED screens, the amount of people on a set?”

Grey's Anatomy
“Grey’s Anatomy” ABC

All studio chiefs are looking forward to TV production going almost back to normal in the near future, giving Deadline their projections when that may happen.

“My hope is that it is later this year, more likely the top of next year where we don’t have to be quite so vigilant about the zones,” Dungey said.

Currently, the talent has been in the central, Zone 1, and then everything radiating out from there with minimum interaction between the zones.

“It makes things complicated when you have writers for example, who want be able to walk onto the set and give an adjustment to a cast member. The hoops that we are jumping through to make sure that everybody stays safe, I hope that we will reach a point where that can be a little bit more casual,” said Dungey, who joined WBTV during the pandemic last fall.

“I’m really excited to get back to the point where we will be able to have more live audiences on a regular basis in our multi-cam comedies, and just personally I look forward as an executive to the opportunity to stop by the set and say hello and watch for a couple of hours.”

Bringing Down Covid Production Costs

Through the rigorous Covid protocols, TV productions have been extremely safe with virtually no on-set transmission. But it has come at a cost.

As Deadline reported in November, implementing the safety measures has added about $200,000-$300,000 an episode to the budget of a multi-camera comedy series, $300,000-$400,000 an episode for single-camera comedy, and $400,000-$500,000 and beyond for a drama. That represents about 10% on top of already hefty production budgets for high-end series. Add to that the cost of shutting down production; each day a production is idle during a Covid outbreak carries a price tag of as much as $100,000.

When would those costs start to go down?

“I don’t think it will subside right away; I think it will be gradual,” Burke said. “Next season, we’re still looking at staying close to as vigilant as we were this year and in terms of our spend to make sure that the sets are safe, and then I think we’ll reevaluate midseason or close to the end of next season.”

Added Davis, “I don’t anticipate the costs we’re paying right now for Covid to stay the same next year, I think they’ll decrease. I think we’ll get back to something, but I do think that health will be top of mind. It’s shining a brighter light on health on our sets [and that] will be something that we will take into the future with us.”

Are Year-Round Development & Straight-To-Series Orders Here To Stay?

When the pandemic hit, it obliterated the 2020 broadcast pilot season. The networks, which had been talking about breaking the traditional development cycle for years but had largely stuck to the status quo, were suddenly forced to forge a new path. We saw a slew of straight-to-series orders for shows like ABC’s Rebel and Call Your Mother; NBC’s Debris, La Brea and Law & Order: For the Defense; CBS’ The Equalizer, Clarice, CSI: Vegas, NCIS: Hawai’i and FBI: International; and the CW’s Kung Fu, The Republic of Sarah and The 4400.

Fox last summer reevaluated its development strategy and introduced a straight-to-series model that involves the opening of a writers room. It yielded two drama series pickups, for Our Kind of People and Monarch.

“We didn’t know what to expect when emerging from Covid and were pleasantly surprised by the number of shows that were picked up straight-to-series as we benefited from that,” said Frost, referring to Sony TV’s straight-to-series order from Fox for The Accused and Fantasy Island.

Additionally, “I definitely think year-round development is something that is getting traction,” he said. “Everything we have seen indicates that broadcasters are very willing to think outside of the traditional broadcast schedule and develop year-round.”

Stapf, who argued that studios have to develop year-round regardless of the networks’ preferred timetable, talked about the studio’s straight-to-series orders since the start of the pandemic: Clarice, The Equalizer, FBI: International (a co-production with Uni TV) as well as The Republic of Sarah and The 4400.

“As a studio, I loved the straight-to-series model, because it’s great, you’re already picked up,” he said. Still, “there are challenges with that. You learn a lot from the pilot system, but if you do it right, straight-to-series can work, and benefit everyone. It allows you to plan better as to how to mount the show.”

The Equalizer
“The Equalizer” Michael Greenburg/CBS

Broadcast-Streaming Ties

Former ABC Entertainment president Dungey watched the broadcast upfronts this year for the first time since she left Disney for Netflix in November 2018.

“What has been interesting for me watching it this [past] week, it is so much about the portfolio,” she said. “NBC, Disney going across the board. Fox was really the only one that was still primarily focused on what is happing at the network, and even they spent a lot of time talking about Tubi. What is interesting for someone who grew up in the broadcast business is seeing how interconnected now all of these different channels, streamers, brands are across the portfolio. Now you are looking at things in a much broader perspective.”

Being part of a large portfolio has allowed broadcast networks to develop a relationship with their streamers, from which in-house studios can benefit.

Paramount+ just stepped in to pick up CBS Studios’ drama series SEAL Team and Evil (it is also in negotiations on Clarice) as they were facing possible cancellations at CBS. As a studio, that makes for an easier conversation with creators about doing an out-of-the-box show for the linear network, knowing that even if something happens there, there’s another way to keep the series going, Stapf said.

“As a studio, having the various platforms that are within the same ecosystem just creates more opportunity,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know if those three shows would’ve been canceled on CBS, but it didn’t really have to be a discussion, because within our own wheelhouse, we had a platform that they might’ve been more appropriate for.”

While HBO Max ended up not picking up WBTV’s sophomore drama Prodigal Son after its cancellation by Fox, Dungey noted that “we have an amazing partnership with Max. We do so much content straight for Max like The Flight Attendant, our new deal for the CW means that all of our CW shows will go through Max.”

She mentioned a recent move to put up episodes of Superman & Lois on the streamer to help tune-in for the show on the CW upon its return from hiatus. And, as Deadline reported earlier this month, WBTV’s Pennyworth is eyeing a move from Epix to HBO Max.

One of NBC’s drama pilots, The Lost Symbol, from CBS Studios and Uni TV, got a series order on Peacock as both the streamer and the network are overseen by the the same content team.

“The best thing about having the content team working across our internal platforms is that they can strategically position shows for the best success using their arsenal of brands,” Underhill said.

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