Co-productions and outside studio purchases in broadcast television have become rarer in recent years, but they are likely to increase for the 2020-’21 television season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to multiple agency sources, this is a way to mitigate risk. Co-productions and outside studio purchases are two ways broadcasters can protect their balance sheets amid the uncertainty caused by the shutdown. By ordering from studios outside their vertically integrated counterparts, networks can spread out the cost of new shows should the pandemic prevent production from beginning in the near future, thus limiting their financial exposure.
Another major factor to consider is liability for medical issues. If a show’s star or showrunner were to contract coronavirus during production, the network and its vertically integrated counterpart are not solely on the hook if the show is a co-production or outside studio order.
“Now is the time to weather the storm and see how you come out on the other side, not put all your eggs in one basket,” one TV lit agent says.
The new broadcast series order volume had been trending down for some time — even before the pandemic swept the globe — but because U.S.-based production shut down in March, some pilots had not yet been fully cast, let alone filmed. Shows, such as the dramatic “Big Sky” at ABC, the animated “Housebroken” at Fox and both new NBC comedies “Young Rock” and “Mr. Mayor” were ordered straight-to-series before the pandemic forced a production shutdown, but all 13 shows picked up to series thus far skipped the often-vital pilot stage.
In addition to “Big Sky,” which hails from creator David E. Kelley and A+E Studios and 20th Century Fox Television, ABC also ordered the comedy “Call Your Mother,” starring Kyra Sedgwick, from Sony and ABC Studios. Last year, ABC had three co-productions/outside orders out of six orders.
CBS has ordered the multi-cam comedy “B Positive” from Chuck Lorre under his overall deal with Warner Bros. Television, along with “Silence of the Lambs” followup “Clarice” from MGM Television and CBS Television Studios, and the “Equalizer” reboot starring Queen Latifah from Universal Television and CBS TV Studios. Last year, CBS had two co-productions/outside orders of eight orders.
The CW has ordered the dramas “Walker” and “The Republic of Sarah” from CBS TV Studios, and “Kung Fu” and “Superman & Lois” from WBTV. The CW is a joint venture between CBS and WB.
Fox has ordered the comedy “Call Me Kat” from WBTV and the aforementioned “Housebroken” from Kapital Entertainment and Bento Box. Since Fox became an independent network, all its shows are co-productions.
Meanwhile, both of NBC’s new shows hail from Universal Television this year. In 2019, NBC had four co-productions/outside orders out of eight orders.
One network executive tells Variety a major driving factor in this year’s decisions is how big the IP being developed is and if any big creators or stars are attached. This executive suspects most of the shows ordered were pretty much guaranteed to get picked up prior to the closure, with the stoppage simply serving to shut out lower-level creators.
Fox has committed strongly to co-productions since the close of the Fox-Disney merger, which split the broadcaster off from 20th Century Fox Television. Michael Thorn, president of entertainment for Fox Entertainment, says the change has allowed the network to stay “independent and nimble.”
“People like Chuck Lorre and David E. Kelley drive co-productions,” Thorn says. “This strategy is one of the cornerstones of the way we do business, It’s a strategy that’s driven by ‘May the best project win,’ not ‘May the best project win behind the top vertically integrated projects.’”
Thorn cites such Fox hits as “The Masked Singer,” which the network owns and produces, as proof the strategy is working. He is not wrong, considering that “The Masked Singer” was the top-rated entertainment program on broadcast during the 2019-20 season. The network also had the No. 1 new show of the season in “9-1-1: Lone Star,” which is produced by 20th TV.
“We get the benefit of access to talent all around town and then they get the benefit of knowing that if they deliver on the promise of the pitch that we bought or the script we’re developing, our decision will be based solely on the quality of the script and concept and the creative partners behind it,” Thorn says.
In a perfect world, COVID-19 will soon be a thing of the past and the measures undertaken to work around it will no longer be necessary. But in reality, networks and studios will continue to grapple with new best practices in these unprecedented times for months to come, if not more.