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May 23, 2009

Upfronts recap: bottom-line focus led to surprising decisions

By Nellie Andreeva

If one show sums up the most dramatic renewal season in memory, it's CBS' "Without a Trace." The drama will vanish after seven seasons while several series with similar or worse pedigrees and ratings won't.

This year, the recession made for more intense renewal negotiations, and when push came to shove on older, more expensive shows, the networks more often than not canceled outside-produced series over those from their own studios.

"Trace," produced by Warner Bros. TV, and 20th TV's "The Unit" were canceled by CBS. Meanwhile, the Eye renewed another long-running drama, the CBS Studios-produced "Numbers," and it picked up from NBC the CBS Studios drama "Medium," whose license fee is said to be in the same range as "Trace." (Although after protracted negotiations, CBS also renewed another 6-year-old WBTV crime drama, "Cold Case." Both "Case" and "Trace" are co-productions with CBS Studios.)

Similarly, NBC booted "Medium" and 20th TV-produced veteran comedy "My Name Is Earl" while renewing its own "Law & Order," which had similar ratings, for at least 16 episodes.

Cost-cutting pressures caused the usual last-minute horse-trading to reach fever pitch this year.

"The networks' economic problems and the escalating production costs over the past few years came home to roost, making the economics of many shows difficult, with negotiations further complicated by issues of vertical integration," 20th TV chairman Gary Newman said.

WBTV's "The New Adventures of Old Christine" landed a full-season renewal by CBS only after it locked in a backup 22-episode order from ABC.

"If you had a show that is powerful enough, you could take it elsewhere," a top studio exec said. "If not, you were at the mercy of the network."

ABC Studios tried shopping "Ghost Whisperer" around but ended up back at CBS. Entering its fifth season, the show was entitled to a license fee that covers its entire budget. But CBS' renewal is said to be in the range of $2 million-$2.5 million an episode, and its cost is believed to be more than $3 million.

For shows that are not top 20 series, getting fully reimbursed by the networks after Season 4, as is the standard, might be a thing of the past, with the studios behind such series as "Whisperer," "Case" and "Bones" making up the deficit via syndication and international sales.

And more and more it helps if the bubble show one produces is on one's sibling network.

"That's the beauty of having shows on CBS," CBS TV Studios president David Stapf said of the lengthy negotiations over "Numbers." "We got into meetings with the network executives and the producers and figured out how we can reduce costs without hurting the show creatively."

Even a solid network-owned show like Fox's "Bones" took weeks of negotiations over the license fee heading into its fifth season, scoring an eleventh-hour two-year pickup.

"The economics of the network TV business are challenging, and 'Bones' was a show that both the network and studio had a big investment in," 20th TV chairman Dana Walden said. "In the end, we worked it out."

But it didn't work out for "Samantha Who?" on ABC, which, despite coming from ABC Studios, was canceled after two seasons.

And nothing produced more drama this year than the renewal of 5-year-old "Medium."

On the eve of NBC's "infront" May 4, the Peacock verbally renewed the series for 13 episodes, with co-chairman Ben Silverman making congratulatory calls to agents and producers.

The offer was not immediately accepted and, the next day, NBC brass insisted the series wasn't picked up. Talks between the network and CBS Studios stalled as NBC insisted on a reduced episode order and a lower license fee.

On Tuesday, NBC said "Medium" was canceled, with Silverman referring to it as "an aging franchise without a single fan letter."

CBS Studios hit back, calling the cancellation "inexplicable," and after some wheeling and dealing, the show was presented as part of CBS' fall schedule the next morning.

"Medium" was the only remaining CBS Studios-produced series for an outside network. The move, which mirrored last year's leap of ABC Studios-produced veteran "Scrubs" from NBC to ABC, raises the question of whether "Trace" would have survived if WBTV were aligned with a major network.

WBTV president Peter Roth is adamant he has no regrets that the studio is not part of a vertically integrated company.

"I prefer, like and honor the independence we have at our studio," he said. "We can take the right shows to the right networks."

The networks, for the most part, were open to new shows from nonaffiliated studios.

WBTV's two new Fox series, the dramas "Human Target" and "Past Life," got post-"American Idol" launching pads, with "Target" also getting previewed following an NFL playoff game.

And WBTV's hot drama "The Mentalist" landed in one of the Eye's most prized slots, 10 p.m. Thursdays.

20th TV also made a splash on a non-Fox network as its comedy pilot "Modern Family" became a centerpiece of ABC's presentation, and Sony TV's "Community," part of studio programming heads Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht's push in comedy, marched onto NBC's Thursday lineup.

ABC has been the most open to outside suppliers in its new series orders this season, with 70% of its pickups going to non-Disney companies. But studio execs wonder how that will change next season, when Stephen McPherson oversees development at the network and ABC Studios.

By contrast, NBC is keeping things in the family.

Sony was the only outside studio to land a newcomer on the network with "Community," though in picking up the series NBC made it a co-production with sister studio UMS.

The only outside series remaining on the Peacock's sked are WBTV's "Chuck" and "Southland," both with 13-episode orders.

CBS' four new fall series hail from CBS Studios, with WBTV landing a midseason order for "Miami Trauma."

74: Scripted pilots ordered by broadcast nets
29: Scripted pilots picked up to series
20: Years since the broadcasters have gone into the fall without a David E. Kelley series on the air
15: Consecutive pilots helmed by David Nutter that have gone to series (ABC's "Eastwick" is the latest)
6: Showrunners who control blocks: Seth MacFarlane and Don Reo on Fox, Shane Brennan and Chuck Lorre on CBS, Shonda Rhimes on ABC, Greg Daniels on NBC
4: New series based on books: ABC's "Flash Forward," CBS' "Accidentally on Purpose," the CW's "The Vampire Diaries," Fox's "Human Target"*
3: New series based on 1980s movies or minis: ABC's "Eastwick" and "V," NBC's "Parenthood"
0: New series based on foreign formats


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