The Vertically Integrated Upfronts: Nets’ Big Push For Program Ownership And Its Impact On Independent Studios, Viewers

After a big push into content ownership among the broadcast networks in the early 2000s, they loosened the grip, resulting in several megahits from non-affiliated studios, including the biggest comedies on television, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. The tide slowly started to turn the past couple of seasons, peaking this upfront in an unprecedented way with what sources describe as the largest increase of in-house production in more than five years. “We have reached a topping point,” one industry observer said. “There is a clear agenda on behalf of the networks’ corporate leadership to ensure as much in-house product as possible.” During the upcoming 2015-16 season, both ABC and Fox will own or co-own more than 80% of their scripted programming (over 60% for CBS and NBC).

Last season, ABC picked up eight new scripted series from ABC Studios and four from other suppliers. This year, all of ABC’s new scripted series are owned by the network. All but two, comedies Dr. Ken (developed/co-produced by Sony TV) and Uncle Buck (developed/co-produced by Universal TV), are fully owned. All ABC drama series — new and returning — are produced by ABC Studios.

Last year, Fox picked up four scripted series from sister studio 20th Century Fox TV and three from outside studios. This year, it ordered eight new shows from 20th TV, including one co-production, comedy Grandfathered, which originated at ABC Studios, and one series owned by an outside studio, Warner Bros. TV drama Lucifer. 

nbclogo__130422182418-150x150Last May, NBC announced four new scripted series from Universal TV and four from outside studios. A year later, the network’s new schedule features nine owned new scripted series (including one co-production, drama Game Of Silence, originally developed by Sony TV) and two outside dramas, Warner Bros. TV’s Blindspot and Sony TV’s The Player. All new NBC comedies are fully owned by the network.

In new series, CBS seems to be bucking the trend, with four new series from CBS TV Studios (including two co-productions with ABC Studios, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders) and three from outside, Warner Bros.’ Supergirl and Rush Hour and 20th TV’s Life In Pieces. Last year, the ratio was six owned, including one co-production, Sony’s The McCarthys, and two external, WBTV drama Stalker and Sony’s Battle Creek.

But there are other ways in which owned product got what could be perceived as preferential treatment. When push came to shove in the final days before CBS’ upfront presentation, the network ended up picking up fully owned bubble shows while canceling all outside ones. The contrast was striking among freshman series: CBS TV Studios‘ CSI: Cyber and The Odd Couple were renewed while the three shows with outside studio ownership, Stalker, Battle Creek and The McCarthys, got the ax. Among established series that got renewed, the only one that is not owned/co-owned by the network, WBTV drama Person Of Interest, did not get a full-season but a partial, 13-episode order. Three seasoned returning scripted series were kept off the fall schedule as midseason replacements, all of them from WBTV: POI and comedies 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. This is the third year in a row that Mike & Molly has been kept on the bench.

Similarly, at ABC, of the freshman shows whose fate came down to the wire, cancelled were the outside ones, WBTV’s Forever and 20th TV’s Cristela, while ABC Studios’ own bubble series, Agent Carter, Galavant, Secrets & Lies and American Crime all made it.

At Fox, cancelled were WBTV’s The Following, Universal TV’s The Mindy Project and 20th TV’s Backstrom. NBC cleaned house, but it did go against the grain, with all of its renewed bubble shows from outside studios, WBTV’s The Mysteries Of Laura and Undateable and Sony’s The Night Shift. 

The trend toward increased ownership — which is not limited to broadcast but also impacts cable — might be partially fueled by success. While the previous two seasons, the highest-rated new series in adults 18-49 had been outside productions, Fox/WBTV’s The Following (2012-13) and NBC/Sony’s The Blacklist (2013-14), the biggest new shows this season were owned by the networks: Fox’s drama Empire and comedy The Last Man On Earth, ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder and comedy Black-ish and CBS drama Scorpion. (The most successful non-affiliated freshman series include Fox/WBTV’s Gotham and ABC/20th TV’s Fresh Off The Boat.) ABC has Shonda Rhimes’ roster of successful owned shows, NBC has Dick Wolf in-house with four series, while CBS has lucrative, fully owned crime franchises, like NCIS.

But it is primarily a financial issue. As TV ad dollars are starting to dry up, ad revenue from a show alone no longer is enough to sustain a network’s profit margin. Owning content becomes crucial in the new digital universe where there are so many means of distribution. Netflix reportedly is paying Sony $2 million an episode for The Blacklist and about $1 million per episode apiece to Fox/20th TV’s New Girl and CBS/CBS TV Studios’ upcoming Zoo. By owning shows such as Zoo, Under The Dome, The Good Wife and Elementary, CBS has been able to create a new windowing strategy for Dome and Zoo that made them profitable before they’d premiered, and to hammer out complex, off-network cable/SVOD deals for Elementary and The Good Wife that, when cumed together, netted some $3 million and $2 million an episode, respectively. Keeping a fully owned animated series, The Simpsons, on the air for quarter of a century is paying big dividends for Fox’s parent company as the animated juggernaut recently netted $1 billion in off-network/SVOD coin.

There are dangers from overextending resources by funding the majority of a network’s slate. With broadcast television’s 80% failure ratio, network’s in-house studios are taking on a big deficit-financing burden by striving to own most of their new series, which contributed to opening up the field a decade ago.

Still, program ownership has become the next primetime frontier and a new corporate agenda. While there always seems to be some last-minute haggling over pilots from outside studios, with a network often inserting itself as a co-producer on a project as it is being picked up to series — Game Of Silence and Uncle Buck are recent examples — I hear that practice has been ramped up in a major way. I’ve heard of a number of instances where studios were bullied, with networks asking for co-production, ownership position or digital rights just as pickup decisions on their pilots are being made this year. And there likely were pilots tossed aside over ownership considerations. “Independent studios have been disadvantaged,” one observer noted. Outside of the CW, which is co-owned and supplied by Warner Bros. and CBS, WBTV landed four new broadcast series, all dramas, on NBC, CBS and Fox. Sony TV got three series orders, two of them co-productions, on NBC and ABC.

There is the conBlindspot (NBC)cept of undeniability. NBC has put three dramas in a row from outside studios in its coveted Monday 10 PM slot, with major marketing push behind them — Revolution and the upcoming Blindspot from WBTV and Sony’s The Blacklist. This fall, CBS’ best comedy slot, behind The Big Bang Theory, is going to 20th TV’s new series Life In Pieces. When Life In Pieces (CBS)you have an “undeniable” property that a network really wants, there is no bargaining and bullying (though I hear NBC owns a small piece of The Blacklist). It is the next tier of shows that are solid and well executed, but not considered exceptional, where things get dicey and the networks can play favorites.

Shows like POI, Elementary, NCIS: LA and Hawaii Five-O could be performing at similar levels and all have off-network deals. But for CBS-owned Elementary, NCIS: LA and Hawaii, that money goes to the network’s corporate parent, while for POI, that’s coin for WBTV. So ratings and viewer popularity are no longer the leading factors when determining the fate of a series, with Elementary, NCIS: LA and Hawaii Five-O assured long lives as each additional produced episode brings extra money for the network’s owners while POI‘s run might be cut short after the upcoming abbreviated fifth season.

Which brings us to the final point. Viewers generally don’t know or care which studio produces their favorite shows. But that might play a role in the decision whether their shows are cancelled or not. Commercial television is a business and not a public service, but what the public wants can matter. Fan support helped cancelled shows such as Community (Sony for NBC) and The Mindy Project find new homes. Still, the new corporate mandate does influence what shows go on the air and stay on the air, and it makes things increasingly difficult for independent studios. The abolishment of fin-syn rules in 1993 drove independent producers out of business, we’ll see what the impact of the current rise in in-house production will have on those who try to sell everywhere.

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