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Upfronts 2018: Network Ownership Peaks, Digital Rights Demands Increase As Volume & License Fees Slide

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A week before ABC made its official new series orders, the network had not screened two high-profile pilots, the light action drama Whiskey Cavalier from producer Bill Lawrence, and comedy Most Likely To from Berlanti Productions. The holdup was due to new expanded digital rights deals ABC had put forward a few weeks before it was to make pickup decisions.

I hear the new template — which varied slightly from show to show and studio to studio — called for expanded stacking rights that cover full seasons in perpetuity on more platforms for all new ABC series. Sources say signing the deals was made a condition for all outside studios to get their pilots screened. Other studios had closed their pacts before pilot screenings kicked off, but negotiations between ABC and Whiskey Cavalier and Most Likely To producer Warner Bros TV went down to the wire, so the showing of the two pilots was pushed to the very last day of network screenings — after ABC and the studio finally closed new digital deals.

This is just an example of the increased pressure independent studios face when trying to sell to the Big 4 broadcast networks, and the new ways broadcast nets try to exploit their content to offset declining linear ratings.

The Blacklist
The Blacklist” Will Hart/NBC

Once again, virtually all bubble shows this season were asked to reduce their license fees, something that has become the norm the past couple of years. I hear very few ones, including NBCs The Blacklist, were able to score renewals without a reduction (but during last years renewal negotiations, NBC was able to increase ownership in the Sony TV show from 25% to 50%). Where once license fees automatically went up every year as shows became more expensive with age, a flat fee is now reason for celebration for any show that is not a smash hit.

And thats not all. I hear the major broadcast networks are asking for concessions in virtually every area including overhead and distribution fees. “They practically want the series for free,” one executive lamented, noting that the escalating demands are forcing independents to diversify and scale back their broadcast portfolios in favor of cable and streaming.

The very last bubble series to be renewed at NBC and Fox, respectively, just hours before the networks upfront presentations were series from outside studios: The Blacklist (NBC) and Warner Bros TVs Lethal Weapon and Gotham (Fox). Lethal Weapons renewal was complicated by one of the most dramatic stories this season, the ouster of the shows original co-star Clayne Crawford over on-set behavior complaints, and his last-minute replacement with Seann William Scott.

Some of the highest-profile passes this season also went to indie pilots including Sony TVs LAs Finest, which is in talks for a pickup by Charter Communications. L.A. Confidential, which Lionsgate TV co-produces with CBS TV Studios, also did not go forward at the broadcast network but could go to CBS All Access if the economics work.

Peak Ownership

It took a couple of years, but we arrived to a point this year where broadcast networks own or co-own every new scripted series on their schedule that is not a revival. The few freshman series that do not come from the networks sister studios are co-productions. That list includes Warner Bros TVs Whiskey Cavalier at ABC (co-production with ABC Studios), Manifest at NBC (co-production with Universal TV) and The Red Line and God Friended Me at CBS (co-productions with CBS TV Studios); Universal TVs FBI and Magnum P.I. at CBS (co-productions with CBS TV Studios); Kapital Entertainments A Million Little Things at ABC (co-production with ABC Studios) and Fam at CBS (co-production with CBS TV Studios); Sony Pictures TVs Schooled at ABC (co-production with ABC Studios); and eOnes The Rookie at ABC (also co-production with ABC Studios). Fox again fully owns all scripted series on its schedule.

Magnum P.I.
“Magnum P.I.” Karen Neal/CBS

Of the two CBS/Uni TV series, Uni TV is lead studio on Dick Wolfs FBI, whose international distribution is handled by CBS, while CBS TV Studios is lead studio on Magnum P.I., with international distribution handled by Universal as the company owns the underlying rights.

It seems like the only foolproof way for independent studios to keep full ownership at a Big 4 network these days is to have a hot revival, like Roseanne (Carsey-Werner) and Murphy Brown (Warner Bros TV).

Because ownership comes with deficit financing series and steep losses on shows canceled early in their run, some observers expected that the current drive by the broadcast networks to own or co-own their content would subside. For now, there are no signs of that.

Decreased Volume

While SVOD players have been growing their original scripted series portfolios exponentially, the Big 4 broadcast networks are contracting their scripted offerings. The 2018 number of pilots was only slightly below last years tally. Among new series, the difference also was not big — 29 new scripted series on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC compared with 32 last year.

But it was a bloodbath on the renewal front this year, with the Big 4 networks canceling one of the largest contingents of series including cult favorites Brooklyn Nine-Nine, axed by Fox, which found a new home at NBC; Foxs Lucifer, ABCs Designated Survivor and CBS Kevin Can Wait. As a result, the Big 4 networks are heading into next season with 86 scripted series vs. 95 last May. (There are a couple of bubble series whose fate has not been decided yet, NBCs Timeless and Champions, CBS Code Black and Foxs LA to Vegas, as well as a handful of pilots that still have a shot at a midseason pickup). The difference will be filled largely by unscripted fare.

Growing CW

Charmed CW

On the flip side, the CW, buoyed by a different business model, is expanding, adding another night of original programming on Sundays. The network has a total of 17 scripted series on tap for next season, up from 15 a year ago and one more than Fox, which is still mulling possible pickups for LA to Vegas and three pilots (untitled Ilene Chaiken, untitled Erin Foster, and Dan the Weatherman).

“Starting in October, we will have 12 hours of original scripted series on our schedule – more than any other broadcast network besides CBS,” CW president Mark Pedowitz said earlier today.

The CW depends on a rich domestic SVOD deal with Netflix, which values serialized scripted series, and on creating value for the studios of its owners, Warner Bros and CBS, which make money off selling their CW shows internationally.

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