UPFRONT 2: The Fall Lineups – Spread the Risk,Share the Riches?

By T.L. Stanley

Coproduction deals abound at the networks as the cost of creating quality programming continues to rise

For executives at Granada, Europe’s most prolific television production company, breaking into the competitive U.S. market has been a goal for some time. But they realized they weren’t likely to do it alone.

Top executives decided that the company’s long-running British drama, Cracker, had the best shot of all the properties in its stable of appealing to an American audience. They went shopping for a U.S.-based production partner and landed a deal with Kushner-Locke, producers of Robert Altman’s anthology, Gun, for ABC’s midseason schedule.

Thirteen episodes of Cracker have been sold to ABC, which has scheduled the Robert Pastorelli series in the mega-competitive Thursday at 9 p.m. slot against NBC’s top-rated Seinfeld and the much-anticipated Veronica’s Closet.

Scott Siegler, former head of Columbia TriStar Television, who recently opened Granada’s Los Angeles operations, said the coproduction came together because Kushner-Locke had an overall deal with award-winning producer Jim Sadwith, who was drawn to Cracker and its quirky, multifaceted lead character.

Such alliances are becoming increasingly common, though Cracker is the only international coproduction on the fall prime-time schedule. Independent production companies, looking to offset the rising cost of creating television shows, are seeking partners with whom to share the financial risk. They also are looking to mine the creative talent linked to the networks and the big Hollywood studios.

Networks, for their part, increasingly are looking inward for programs, to either their in-house production divisions or their corporate partners. (ABC parent Disney, for example, supplies the network with three of its five Tuesday-and Friday-night shows.) The Big Four, when looking externally for shows, are seeking partnerships that will enable them to own a piece of the project and collect on back-end profits. Some production companies have been more willing than others to partner. DreamWorks SKG, for example, got into a flap over coproduction of the studio’s two sitcoms in development for NBC’s fall lineup. Because NBC wanted to bring creative talent to the projects, the network also wanted to be a financial partner. DreamWorks balked, and in the end, NBC did not pick up the sitcoms. In fact, most of the new series that ended up on NBC’s fall schedule are coproductions, adding fuel to the fire of criticism that the No. 1 network has been leaning heavily on production companies for control. Only Warner Bros., traditionally the heaviest of the heavyweight program suppliers, has been immune, with two new (partnerless) sitcoms in its lineup.

In Granada’s case, the mating process had to be somewhat organic. “You can’t start with, ‘Where do I make the best business deal?'” Siegler, president of Granada Entertainment, says of the search for a programming partner. “You must start with, ‘What’s the best creative marriage?'”

MTV Productions makes its first foray into prime-time network TV this fall with three coproductions, two sitcoms and a drama with its sister division, Paramount Network TV. A third coproduction partner, NBC Studios, is attached to one of the projects, Jenny, featuring Jenny McCarthy, who became a household name after starring in MTV’s Singled Out.

The key to the alliances was talent, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, according to Van Toffler, executive vice president of MTV Productions. For Jenny, Paramount brought veteran producers Howard Gewirtz and Mark Reisman from Wings, which recently completed a seven-year run on NBC and featured McCarthy in a guest spot last season. In addition to making extensive suggestions on the pilot script, NBC also brought in George Hamilton to play the role of McCarthy’s cheesy (and deceased) father, who leaves her a Hollywood home and a videotaped goodbye message.

“It gives us a way to tap into the relationships they’ve developed over time with showrunners, directors and writers,” Toffler says of the NBC partnership. “We bring the young, cutting-edge, breakthrough talent and they contribute their incredible knowledge of the prime-time network audience.”

Columbia TriStar Television made it clear during the development season that it wanted production partners for its series. Of the eight shows that have been picked up from the studio, half are coproductions with networks. Three of the remaining four projects are coproductions with the studio’s long-term partner Procter & Gamble. Both of its new NBC shows are coproductions with the network’s in-house division, NBC Studios. The studio also partnered with CBS Productions and New Regency for The Gregory Hines Show and Michael Hayes, respectively.

“You have to make practical decisions,” says Andy Kaplan, executive vice president of Columbia TriStar Television Group. “Sometimes you have the leverage to maintain your independence, and sometimes you don’t. And when networks are demanding coproduction, it’s a who-blinks-first kind of thing.”

While executives at some small production companies are concerned that they could be squeezed out of the programming game or forced into partnerships they don’t want, others say coproductions are a fact of life not to be dreaded.

“Coproductions require flexibility and a trusting nature,” Siegler says. “And if you do make a deal with a studio or large production company, then you have a powerful partner with a vested interest in keeping your show on the air. That’s what matters.”

While Kaplan agrees, he thinks the co-production business is at its peak and likely will taper off after the coming season.

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