For Broadcast Networks, Ownership Matters More Now Than Ever Before
“We have to love the creative and we have to love the business model.”
That’s what Fox CEO Rob Wade told reporters Monday ahead of his network’s upfront presentation to Madison Avenue ad buyers, as he and his fellow broadcast network executives usher in a harsh new reality that confronts the nearly flatline linear ratings for pricey scripted originals.
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That’s also how Wade described the decision to let 911 — Fox’s highest-rated scripted show — move to ABC for the upcoming 2023-24 broadcast season while still keeping its lower-rated spinoff, Lone Star.
Wade, who took over as CEO for Charlie Collier in October 2022, is one of few broadcast execs who carved out time for the press during upfronts week. What has historically been a busy week lined with numerous press calls and presentations for television trade press has now become an afterthought of sorts as Fox, for the second year in a row, declined to release its fall schedule. While this year’s decision to forgo the formal announcement has more to do with the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, it’s still a reflection of the slide of broadcast.
As ratings continue to tumble as viewership shifts to streaming, the broadcast networks this upfront season have focused on improving the economics behind new and long-running scripted originals. In one of the season’s most telling moves, Wade revealed that Collier made the decision a year ago to release 911 back to Disney, whose 20th Television studio owns the series.
“We’ve adopted new business models for production and talent. … Importantly, owning or co-owning, giving us even greater creative freedom,” he told reporters Monday. “That means when deciding what stories to tell, we have to love the creative and we have to love the business model.”
Since Fox lost its studio (20th TV) as part of its massive asset sale to Disney in late 2019, the network has increasingly prioritized owning its content, be it live-action scripted or animation and reality as it launched its own in-house scripted and unscripted studios. For the upcoming 2023-24 season, Fox co-produces Doc and the animated Universal Basic Guys (co-owned by Sony), Rescue: Hi-Surf (with Warners), and fully owns animated comedies Grimsburg and Krapopolis, both of which have already been renewed with Fox execs looking to turn Rescue into a franchise. Of the network’s returning shows, Fox fully owns Joel McHale comedy Animal Control and co-owns The Cleaning Lady and The Great North (with 20th). Meanwhile, Fox last year reduced the licensing fees it pays to Disney for the hits Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy and The Simpsons as rumors swirl that the trio of long-running animated comedies could move to Disney platforms at the end of their multi-season renewals at the end of the 2024-25 season.
Remaining on the bubble at Fox are Welcome to Flatch, which Fox co-owns alongside Lionsgate TV and the BBC and the Disney-controlled animated series Housebroken, with those decisions coming after the writers strike ends.
Over at CBS, the network fully owns three of its four new series. Of its 15 returning series, CBS owns or has a slice of the ownership pie on all but two: Young Sheldon and Bob Hearts Abishola, which are both produced by Warner Bros. TV and comedy kingpin Chuck Lorre. Warners historically does not share ownership of Lorre’s shows. The Paramount Global-owned broadcaster and Warners found a way to reduce the costs on Bob Hearts Abishola as the entire cast, save for its two stars behind the title characters, were reduced from series regular to recurring roles for the recently ordered fifth season. SWAT also was revived for an abbreviated 13-episode final season after CBS and co-producers Sony found a way to make the show for a slimmed-down budget in yet another sign of how networks are looking to change the economics to keep a show on the air. The same is true, too, of shows that are even owned in-house as the cast and creatives of CBS Studios’ Blue Bloods agreed to take a 25 percent pay cut to get a 14th season.
Shifting to NBC, the network fully owns all six of its Dick Wolf Law & Order and Chicago shows — a contrast to CBS, where the procedural king’s FBI franchise is a co-pro with CBS Studios. Outside of Night Court (co-produced with Warners) and rookies Extended Family (with Lionsgate) and Found (also Warners), NBC has full or at least partial ownership of its entire roster of scripted originals. (Comedies American Auto, Grand Crew and Young Rock — all produced by NBC’s studio sibling Universal TV — remain on the bubble with decisions expected in June.)
ABC, which has yet to order any new scripted series for next season, is largely in the same boat. After taking on 911, the flagship in the Ryan Murphy-produced franchise now both airs and is owned by Disney. Outside of Abbott Elementary (a co-pro with Warners) and The Good Doctor (a co-pro with Sony), ABC now owns or co-produces its entire schedule. The Conners, which is expected to be renewed, is from indie studio Jax Media and is still undergoing conversations around ways to reduce the show’s budget. Fellow bubble comedy Home Economics is also a co-production (with Lionsgate). The Goldbergs, which was fully owned by Sony, wrapped after 10 seasons and Big Sky, which ABC co-produced with A+E Studios, was axed. The Rookie: Feds, like its flagship series, is a co-production with eOne and remains on the bubble with a renewal looking likely.
Owning or co-producing a series gives networks greater control over budgets and often just means that companies are moving money from one division (a network) to another (a studio). The push for ownership isn’t new, however, as networks began to see the writing on the wall years ago as viewership shifted to streaming and ratings started to crater. Perhaps the best example of broadcast networks looking to reduce costs and generate more profits is The CW. Launched in 2006 as a joint venture between Warner Bros. TV and CBS Studios, the pair sold a controlling 75 percent stake in the network in October to station group Nexstar. The sale came after the revenue streams that helped to create The CW — foreign sales and streaming rights — dried up when the parent companies of both studios, Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global, funneled CW originals to their respective streamers (HBO Max, Paramount+) and opted out of their $1 billion output deal that sent all CW originals to Netflix. Now, the Nexstar-controlled CW has been busy buying low-cost foreign originals that have already aired elsewhere as the network’s roster of homegrown shows (a la Riverdale and Nancy Drew) has dwindled from 18 to just two, with three Warner Bros.-produced shows (All American: Homecoming, Superman & Lois, Gotham Knights) remaining on the bubble. The cancellation spree is part of Nexstar’s effort to make The CW profitable for the first time by 2025. (The network was never designed to be profitable, but rather it was created to generate millions for Warners and CBS Studios via foreign and streaming sales.)
As Wade effectively summed up during his Monday morning press call: “We all know the industry is at an inflection point, and we are doing everything we can to be adaptable to the market and disciplined in our approach.”
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