Four years ago, the TV Guide Channel, a co-venture of CBS and Lionsgate, relaunched as Pop with a slate of unscripted series and a scripted comedy, Schitt’s Creek, which has become the basic cable network’s signature series. Now in its fifth season (and certain to be renewed for a sixth as it eyes an off-network syndication sale), the comedy, headlined by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, is being joined tonight by Pop’s latest scripted series, comedic drama Flack.
Pop has high expectations for the newbie, starring Anna Paquin as a celebrity PR executive. “As I stood on this stage four years ago and told you that Schitt’s Creek would become our network’s first hit comedy, I’m here today to tell you that Flack will emerge as our network’s first standout comedic drama,” Pop president Brad Schwartz said at the winter TCA press tour a couple of weeks ago.
There have been other high-profile series to launch on Pop since Schitt’s Creek that did not go beyond one season, including Nightcap, starring Ali Wentworth, and Let’s Get Physical, with AnnaLynne McCord, Chris Diamantopoulos and Jane Seymour.
In an interview with Deadline, Schwartz talks about those shows and the challenges for a smaller network like Pop to get its shows noticed. He is optimistic that, like AMC successfully did it with a string of original drama hits after being known as a home of old movies, Pop can do it too. In addition to Flack, Schwartz is bullish on upcoming comedy series Florida Girls, slated to premiere later this year, and two just-ordered comedy pilots in Best Intentions, from American Pie writer Adam Herz, and Ride Or Die.
Schwartz also shares his heartbreak over having to let figure scating drama Spinning Out (fka Kiss and Cry) go after not being able to make the economics on the series work. (It was quickly snapped up by Netflix, which had previously been approached by Pop about becoming co-producer). He also discusses whether Pop would return to unscripted programming and why the network recently dropped soap repeats and wrestling.
DEADLINE: So far it has been hard for you to launch a scripted series as big as your first one, Schitt’s Creek. Why is that, and would Flack be able do it?
SCHWARTZ: It’s interesting because when you’re a smaller network, is a show not good or has just nobody found it? We can’t use the same kind of metrics that a lot of people use, and Schitt’s Creek is such a fabulous example of that. The show’s always been great, but here we are in the fifth season, and it’s finally on everybody’s radar. I think a lot of that has to do with just being a smaller, emerging network. Was Nightcap not a success, was it not good, or did just nobody find it yet? It’s difficult.
One of the lovely things about Schitt’s Creek is the business deal on that, being a co-production with CBC and ITV, with the international and tax credits and using Canadian dollars. It allowed us to keep that show going because we loved it, and it finally paid off for us. What if we had done four seasons of Nightcap? Would eventually people been like, “Oh, my god, have you seen that show? It’s genius.” Who knows.
You’re right. We haven’t had the success of Schitt’s Creek duplicated yet, but at the same time, you need one to then start launching two and three and four and five, and in less than four years, we have one. To me, it feels a lot. We’re in a different environment, but it feels a lot like AMC 10 years ago when they were black-and-white movies, and Mad Men really broke through and made them known for something. Then, of course, they had Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
I feel like we’re in this place four years in where we now need our Breaking Bad and our Walking Dead, and I think Flack is going to be one. We have our hit, which continues, and Flack, I think, is our next one, we have two pilots that are shooting shortly. And then Florida Girls from Lionsgate is really an outlandish, Broad City-type of show that I think plays red state and blue state, because it’s about people growing up in a trailer park. It’s a true-life story and it’s clever for the coasts and it’s broad for the whole country.
I love what we have coming. You don’t have $10 million to market a show, and in today’s day and age of how competitive it is, it’s hard to break through. All you got to do is love what you do, believe in it, and keep pushing. So, I think we’re at this next stage of evolution for Pop — the first four years to get Schitt’s Creek, and now Breaking Bad and Walking Dead.
DEADLINE: You mentioned how Schitt’s Creek was helped by its business model. Does it mean that you will put even more emphasis on co-productions that would allow you to be patient with those shows and give them more time to find an audience?
SCHWARTZ: Where we are in the world, without $8 billion to spend, we have to be scrappier. We have to think differently. We have to put models together, especially if we want to do high-quality scripted content like we’re doing instead of reality and separate ourselves in that way. We can’t just do $8 million-an-episode shows, we can’t do $3 million-an-episode shows.
With Kiss and Cry, which became Spinning Out, that was our favorite project, best script I think we ever had, and a young, up-and-coming new voice who wrote it, autobiographical and a passion project — all the things that we love to champion. We went everywhere trying to get that (made). We went to CBC in Canada, tried to co-produce it under a Schitt’s Creek model, we went to Netflix and tried to do a co-production deal with them on it, we went to MGM because they have the figure skating movie The Cutting Edge.
We went to MGM and we were like, do you want to do this with us and we’ll call it Cutting Edge, just like Friday Night Lights, we’ll just borrow the IP. We went all over town for like a year trying to figure out how to put the money together for it. Lionsgate came on board at one point, and we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t find the economic model for us, and it’s heartbreaking and we had to let it go, and then Netflix jumped on it. Part of me is cheering for it because I love it so much, and then the other part of me is like, that’s the next Homeland. It’ll be on my résumé but it will suck that’s it’s not on Pop.
DEADLINE: You must have a piece of it.
SCHWARTZ: A little bit. Yes. We participate in it a little bit.
DEADLINE: And you had developed it from a pitch…
SCHWARTZ: Yes. It was this young writer who wrote on Search Party and Mr. Mercedes. She was a figure skater in her youth, and she wrote about this world that she knows really well. We developed it, we developed outlines for the next four seasons, we developed the script and we put a budget together to shoot in Canada, which is where Netflix is shooting it. But anyway, it goes to your business model question, which is, unfortunately, we couldn’t make that one work.
Flack is very similar to Schitt’s Creek where it’s a co-production with UKTV. It’s a very big-budget show that we pay a smaller part of. International is sold by somebody else and we have all rights in the United States. So, much like Schitt’s Creek, if we decide to put it on Netflix, we sell it to Netflix. If we decide to put it on Hulu, we make that sale. Schitt’s Creek syndication, that’s us; we do a deal where we have all the rights. I think in today’s day and age, especially as a younger network, you need to control everywhere where people are watching your content. You can’t come to the Pop app and have Schitt’s Creek not be there. So, we do deals for all rights in this country, and we try and find things that work within our not $8 billion budget.
DEADLINE: Have you sold Schitt’s Creek in domestic syndication yet?
SCHWARTZ: Not yet. Debmar-Mercury, part of Lionsgate, will be doing this. They just started teasing it at NATPE last month and it should be in syndication fall of ’20. Can you believe we have enough episodes of Schitt’s Creek to get syndication? It’s fabulous.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you want Pop to be known a home of high-quality scripted content. Are you not pursuing unscripted projects anymore?
SCHWARTZ: We’ve developed a couple of things, and nothing so far that we have been able to figure out how to make it fit.
DEADLINE: You have Big Brother: After Dark…
SCHWARTZ: That’s right, and that does very well for us, especially with younger demos, it does great. So, never say never, but we’re now known for Schitt’s Creek.
DEADLINE: Because of Schitt’s Creek, you’re also known for comedic sensibility. Will you continue to focus on comedic shows?
SCHWARTZ: Yes, 100 percent. Even Flack, which is our first drama, is extraordinarily funny. It’s not Ray Donovan, you know, it’s very funny. We just want lighthearted fun. Why is Schitt’s Creek just breaking through in culture — it’s joyous, it’s happy, it’s broad, and in this world we live in right now, I really think that’s what people are going for. And if you love Schitt’s Creek, you’re going to love Best Intentions. If you love Schitt’s Creek, you’re going to love Ride or Die. If you love Schitt’s Creek, you’re going to love Florida Girls, and so we’re thinking about that. But having said that, if you love Schitt’s Creek, we thought Let’s Get Physical would be great, and that just didn’t execute well.
DEADLINE: Are you still considering revamping it or has that ship sailed?
SCHWARTZ: I think that ship has sailed. It was such a good idea, it was such a good pitch and it felt like the movie Dodgeball for TV, which again, was just joyous and happy and fun. The cast, as you know, was amazing. It was Matt Jones and Chris Diamantopoulos and AnnaLynne McCord and Jane Seymour. The cast was phenomenal, the writing was great, and it didn’t execute well. But hey, you’re not going to bat a thousand.
DEADLINE: You recently took a Pop staple, daytime soap repeats, off the schedule, along with your wrestling program. Why is that?
SCHWARTZ: Yes, we had a wrestling show every Thursday night, which by the way was one of our 10 highest-rated shows on the network. They wanted to keep going, obviously. It was two hours of original content every Thursday night, 52 weeks a year that would do 400 thousand-500 thousand viewers every Thursday night.
We had to really start focusing on brand and expectation, and I think if you’re going to pitch yourself and tell audiences that you’re this place for premium content, Schitt’s Creek, Flack, Florida Girls, this type of stuff, then people need to know what to expect from you when they come to the channel.
DEADLINE: What about soaps? Same reason?
SCHWARTZ: Same reason. We wanted to really focus in on our core demo. Soaps, as much as it’s a big total audience number, it’s older. It’s a lot of 65-plus.