CBS TV Studios Developing Muhammad Ali Limited Series, Marc Webb Musical As Part Of Expansion Into Premium Content

CBS TV Studios David Stapf
CBS TV Studios

Earlier this week, Netflix gave a straight-to-series order to limited series Unbelievable, from CBS Television Studios. It was the CBS Corp-owned studio’s 12th series order from a premium/streaming network, joining American Vandal and Insatiable at Netflix, Your Honor and Cartoon President at Showtime, Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, No Activity, The Twilight Zone, $1 and Strange Angel — all for CBS’ sibling CBS All Access — and Carpool Karaoke for Apple Music.

Muhammad Ali Joe Frazier

It is part of a major ramp-up at CBS TV Studios, which has gone from zero to 12 premium cable/streaming series in the past three  years, with several other projects in development. That includes 8 Fights, a limited series about boxing great Muhammad Ali from producer Morgan Freeman. Written by Dan Kay and Jonathan Eig based on Eig’s recently published biography Ali: a Life, the series will chronicle eight distinct moments in the life of Ali, with each episode framed by one fight from his boxing career. Also in internal development is They, a college-based musical from director Marc Webb (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and multiple Tony winner Steven Sater (Spring Awakening).

At Netflix, the studio has in the works special Free To Be You and Me, an update of Marlo Thomas’ influential 1972 children’s album on gender stereotypes and subsequent Emmy-winning TV special, with Jennifer Crittenden and Gaby Allan writing and Thomas and Ryan Seacrest Prods. producing; as well as Dead To Me, a dark comedy series from writer Liz Feldman and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gloria Sanchez, about a powerful friendship that blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.

They join previously announced CBS Studios development projects Vatican City, from Robert and Michelle King and Scott Free; LA Story, a re-imagining of the 1991 movie with a Latin flair from Gina Rodriguez; Watergate, based on the Thomas Mallon novel that explores the scandal, from writer John Orloff  and producer Paul Giamatti; and a dark revenge comedy starring Isla Fisher, from writer Erica Rivinoja, director Jake Szymanski and Gloria Sanchez, which is currently in a competitive situation.

The studio also has had shows set up at Hulu, Amazon, Apple and HBO. It has two series on basic cable, The Guest Book and Drop the Mic at TBS, and has projects in development at TNT, Paramount Network as well as Pop, which CBS Corp co-owns with Lionsgate.

CBS Studios (then-CBS Paramount Network Television) laid out a strategy to expand beyond its core business of supplying CBS as well as UPN (later the CW) soon after the merger of Paramount Network Television and CBS Prods under David Stapf, There was no original programming on streaming platforms at the time, so the studio’s initial targets were basic cable and premium cable networks. The studio landed its first series on A&E (the 2008 The Cleaner) and USA Network ( 2012’s Common Law) and set up a couple of projects at corporate sibling Showtime including an Andrew Gurland docu-comedy that went to pilot.

“At the beginning, our job was to build up the television division as an in-house studio, so the main focus was to increase ownership of CBS Network schedule,” Stapf said. “It took a few years but we did that, we got to 75 percent-80 percent of the CBS schedule. It was always our long-term strategy of growing beyond our home network. We knew that the shelf space would eventually fill up at CBS. If we’re doing our job right, we’ll continue to replenish as well as keep those shows on the air, but to broaden and diversify, we’re going to have to start selling elsewhere.”

To do that, the studio moved “towards building out and diversifying our roster, bringing in people that played in that space as well as the network space,” Stapf said. The pitch to writers was, “bring us all your ideas and wherever that idea belongs we’ll attempt to go and sell it for you.”

Seal Team

Some of the producers the studio brought in include Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly, who already had FX’s Justified and Showtime’s Masters of Sex set up under their previous deal at Sony TV. The duo delivered multiple broadcast series for CBS TV Studios at sibling CBS, including Elementary, Unforgettable and, most recently, SEAL Team, while also continuing to target the premium space, landing an order for Unbelievable at Netflix. Similarly, Alex Kurtzman, originally partnered with Bob Orci, has added Scorpion, Limitless, Salvation and Instinct to his first CBS series, Hawaii Five-0, while also shepherding the studio’s CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery.

CBS TV Studios-based Freeman, executive producer of the studio’s CBS drama series Madam Secretary, also is behind 8 Fights. Ferrell and McKay’s Funny Or Die/Gary Sanchez/Gloria Sanchez labels are developing broadcast comedies under a deal at CBS TV Studios along with the studio’s Netflix series American Vandal, No Activity for All Access, and the Isla Fisher comedy.

The Good Fight
“The Good Fight” CBS All Access

Robert and Michelle King, creators of CBS Studios’ acclaimed CBS drama The Good Wife, are behind three new premium/streaming drama series for the studio — The Good Wife sequel The Good Fight on All Access, Your Honor at Showtime, and Vatican City. And My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia, who has been developing broadcast comedies for CBS Studios under his overall deal, including CBS series The Millers, got to do a passion project, anthology comedy The Guest Book, which has been a breakout for TBS.

CBS TV Studios also is using its library of IP to attract top talent. Jordan Peele, 3-time Oscar nominee for Get Out, came in to pitch a new take on The Twilight Zone, which led to the upcoming reboot for CBS All Access.

While most other TV studios have dedicated cable/streaming divisions with their own infrastructure and set of executives, CBS TV Studios does not have that, with heads of drama Bryan Seabury and comedy Kate Adler overseeing both broadcast and premium fare.

“It makes sense,” Stapf said. “You’re not pigeonholing an idea before it even comes in. It allows the project to be what it should be.”

Emerging platforms have introduced new business models that differ from one place to another, making dealmaking complicated. While negotiating agreements there sometime takes a long time, “you figure it out because both sides want the same thing, which is you know we want a show on there, and they want the show. So the business tends to follow,” Stapf said.

In streaming, platforms like Netflix require worldwide rights for a fixed fee, a premium over cost, which makes the series not available to outside studios to sell internationally. There is very little or no back-end prospects for the studios and profit participants.

Still, selling to such buyers is a lucrative business and CBS TV Studios makes money on its premium series for CBS All Access as well as non-CBS affiliated streaming networks, Stapf said.


For years, CBS TV Studios had been known primarily as a supplier of procedural dramas to CBS, like the blockbuster CSI and the NCIS franchises. Stapf admitted it took some convincing premium buyers to accept the as just another seller. “It was just educating people that we are aggressively selling everywhere, and I think now by actually producing series for multiple platforms, proves that,” he said.

Having CBS in the name of the studio likely added to some confusion among premium networks early on, but Stapf noted that there are no plans to use a different moniker for the studios’ cable and streaming operation as is the case with other studios like Warner Bros TV, 20th Century Fox TV and ABC Studios.

American Vandal
“American Vandal” Netflix

Funny or Die’s American Vandal, which had flown under the radar to become a top binge-watched show for Netflix last year and earn a second-season renewal, has become a calling card for the studio and a model for a comedy slate built on modestly priced premium half-hours.

“We approached Funny or Die about going out with a slate of comedies similar to American Vandal, Adler said. “Our goal is to find several of these, I wouldn’t even say low-budget, I’ll call them lower-budget comedies. A limited series, eight to 10 episodes, ideally all directed by the same person so we can project a vision similarly to American Vandal, have them be really distinctive. We’ll be going out with this as a slate of comedy.”

Most of the comedy ideas discussed “are genre benders in the same way that American Vandal was a bit of a send-up of a documentary, of the vérité genre,” Adler added. “We’re looking at horror comedies, and left-of-center ideas.”

While Showtime is a corporate sibling to CBS TV Studios, the studio does not take its premium projects there first. There is no preferential treatment either — the studio had sold a number of projects there over the past decade, two of them going to pilot — the Andrew Gurland mokumentary and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — but had not scored series orders until the upcoming Our Cartoon President, from CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert, and Your Honor, which the Kings are doing with Peter Moffat.


“We have a nice relationship with them because we’re siblings, but we won’t necessarily do anything that’s not going to be right for the project,” Stapf said. “We are proud to be part of their growing slate of originals with Our Cartoon President and other projects in the works but they don’t buy a lot, so you don’t want to limit yourself. If we say all of our premium cable is only going to be Showtime then we wouldn’t be able to set stuff up elsewhere. We don’t exclude anybody.”

When Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did not go to series at Showtime, CBS TV Studios successfully moved it to the CW, where it has become a critical darling, now in its third season. Last year, the studio accomplished the opposite transfer, a CW pilot that did not go to series at the broadcast network landing an order on a premium outlet when Netflix picked up Insatiable.

“It was a really good example of us being nimble enough to stand behind the project and find the right home,” Seabury said.

The streaming network liked the project as is and ” didn’t want us to ‘premium cable it up’,” Stapf said.

The bulk of CBS TV Studios’ streaming series are on CBS All Access. The studio had been given a mandate to get the sibling platform up and running with an inaugural slate of original series.

“We had to hole to fill and they needed product,” Stapf said. “For us it was exciting to be able to say, great, we’ll be your supplier. The challenge was making sure it was of a quality that was going to speak to people laying money down for it.”


It wasn’t always easy. While The Good Fight breezed through development and production, launching in a short turnaround to strong reviews, Star Trek: Discovery‘s premiere was delayed multiple times and the show underwent a showrunner change. The finished product has been well received and has fueled signups for All Access, but the production challenges taught the studio some lessons too.

“There was a learning curve for all of us, producers included,” Stapf said.

With the growing premium/streaming slate, CBS TV Studios is planning to expand its programming departments with the hire of more executives. The studio already has increased its development budget. “It made more business sense because we were going to sell more versus just selling to CBS,” Stapf said.

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