Elizabeth Guider Reports: CBS’s SEAL Team Piques Buyer Interest


PREMIUM: Leaving aside the two buzzy juggernauts Twin Peaks and Star Trek: Discovery—both of which are already bespoke in prime pay and digital windows in major territories abroad—the hottest commodity at CBS Studios International this week during the L.A. Screenings appears to be, of all things, a military-esque drama, SEAL Team.

SEAL Team is less a bang, bang superhero kind of show and more a bracing take on the traditional procedural the network is famous for. The fall hopeful focuses on the inner workings and the varied talents of an elite squad on dangerous missions as well as on their conflicts with one another and at home. Its auspices include Mark Owen, a former Navy SEAL who famously gave his account of the raid to get Osama Bin Laden on 60 Minutes several years ago.

A wide sampling of European and Asian buyers on hand Tuesday morning on the Paramount lot gave the pilot, directed by Chris Chulack, a clear thumbs-up, calling it variously “riveting,” “authentic” and “nicely shot, especially the helicopter scene.”

Plus, several attendees lavished praise on the performance of the lead actor, David Boreanaz, with one of the foreign execs exclaiming: “I remember him all the way back to Buffy, but in this he’s completely different, yet quite believable.” Equally upbeat was the reaction from another buyer—but about the “performance” of the dog in the show, her name Dita, who along with the human star was on hand during lunch to glad-hand (or paw?) with some of the 250 acquisition execs in attendance.

Likely figuring they had a promising series hopeful on their hands, CBS cajoled the exec producing trio of SEAL Team—veteran talents Sarah Timberman, Ben Cavell and Ed Redlich—to put in an appearance on the lot. They insisted to World Screen Newsflash that, from the outset, neither they nor CBS brass wanted to make a rah-rah “America First” kind of show.

“It’s shot from the perspective of the SEAL participants, including Boreanaz, who is (appropriately) soulful and haunted in his role,” Timberman said. “It’s really about good and evil, not about the politics of one country or another,”Cavell added. Also, Redlich pointed out, “We were in a position to make something that feels so authentic and so moving thanks to the fact that we had Mark [Owen] as a consultant and the eye for detail of Chris [Chulack].”

The overseas buyers, now deep into their deliberations on what they either have to take in their ongoing deals with one studio or another, or if not so tied up, what they hope to secure in one-off negotiations, spent the day viewing six new CBSSI series. A comedy called 9JKL, a summer mini called Salvation, a midseason offering called Instinct, and another military-focused piece for The CW called Valor, round out the slate.

The marathon session in the Paramount screening theater wound up with two episodes of the David Lynch return to Twin Peaks, which will eventually be licensed to linear broadcasters post its pay deals with operators like Sky in the U.K., Germany and Italy, Bell Media in Canada and Telefónica in Spain.

Since the creative bar has been indisputably raised at all the Hollywood studios for what regards their scripted TV pilots for broadcast networks and for cable Stateside, it is quite difficult to find total duds anywhere on schedules in the last few years.

And, with so many buyers for so many differently targeted platforms abroad, it is possible on any given day during the Screenings to find fans for just about anything. That doesn’t always mean that a personal preference is what said buyer will put money on the table for, but, if they’re gung-ho about one or another show, it usually means they or one of their competitors will be taking said show home in their bag of pickups.

Thus, a buyer from Mongolia said she was “quite taken” with the comedy 9JKL, which is about a young guy, recently divorced and back from Tinseltown, who returns to New York to (temporarily) live next door to his parents on one side and his married brother on the other. Another Asian buyer said that Wisdom of the Crowd, an Israeli concept which stars Jeremy Piven as a tech billionaire who creates a crowd-sourcing app to find the killer of his daughter, was “engrossing” and “fast-moving.”

In line for burgers during the lunch break, one northern European buyer told World Screen Newsflash that he particularly appreciated that CBS’s offerings are “never too many because their schedule is rather stable. We all like stability so that series we import last on our stations. However, I’d also say, and I mean it positively, the network seems to be expanding on the kinds of shows they do. The comedies a little raunchier, the dramas more in your face.” Like most other buyers encountered early on during the Screenings week, he declined to be named until he has visited and assessed product at all the other studios.

For his part, Armando Nuñez, president and CEO of CBS Studios International, told the assembled that CBS was once again this past season “the most watched network,” as it has been for the last 9 out of 14 years. “It’s all here,” he stressed, pointing to the conglom’s buzzy serialized dramas, ultra-premium material for Showtime, solid procedurals and family comedies. “CBS cuts through the clutter; I don’t know why you folks bother going anywhere else,” he quipped.

Later during lunch, Nuñez told World Screen Newsflash that offers for different shows happen “all the time,” and that the Screenings are simply the beginning of a year-long process. Rumor Tuesday morning was that one key British buyer—all of them being extremely picky and generally not disposed to fork out on the spot in Los Angeles—had made a substantial offer for one of the new shows at CBS, but Nuñez would not be drawn on the subject. Rather, he emphasized that licensing shows is about managing a portfolio through a complex system of windows. “Journalists get over-excited about a single deal or other” and thus can miss the point, he maintained.

Nuñez also took issue with a plethora of press reports that claim American shows have been largely relegated to the sidelines of overseas broadcast schedules, especially in Europe. “Not so for many of our series,” he emphasized, mentioning Hawaii Five-O, NCIS, Elementary and even CSI, which, he said, still airs in prime time on major stations in various territories.

“The point is,” he added, “there’s undoubtedly pressure on all of us programmers to manage the evolution of how consumers access and enjoy content. But when we do make a big deal,”—like the company’s global arrangement outside North America with Netflix for Star Trek: Discovery or for Twin Peaks with a handful of key overseas pay-TV operators, including Sky, Bell and Telefonica—”we do not leave any money on the table,” as it were.

Speaking more generally about the strategy behind CBS’s current creative lineup, David Stapf, the president of CBS Television Studios, put the accent on his group’s determined efforts to “stretch ourselves creatively” and to “think globally.”

“For us, it’s about coming up with interesting, provocative, universally appealing product that can play across platforms in an evolving horizontal landscape,” he explained, suggesting that his team bristles (metaphorically at least) when talent agents come in and start their pitches by saying, “We think what we have is a CBS show.” Stapf said the first requisite is “a great idea,” not trying to fit a preconceived notion of what CBS is.

“If that’s what we’re brought—a provocative story,” he added, “we’ll find the right outlet for it” within the company.

The production chieftain pointed to the process behind the upcoming fall drama Wisdom of the Crowd, which originated with the Israel-based company Keshet and that NBC had tried, twice, to get off the ground without success. When it was shopped to CBS, Stapf went on, “we knew we had something special and contemporary.”

The writer eventually attached to the series, Ted Humphrey, a veteran of CBS’s The Good Wife, was also on hand during the lunch hour. He told World Screen Newsflash that his aim was to go beyond the whole crowd-sourcing theme and get at something “more universal.” Who “wouldn’t relate to a story about parents who had lost a child?” he said. And then Jeremy Piven got interested in the lead role, he explained, and that made it easier to write. “Jeremy’s kind of outside the box (as an actor) and he brings an element of danger to his role.” (Piven too was on hand to tub-thumb the show to overseas clients.)

The Screening sessions for the 1,600 or so foreign buyers in town continue at all the major studios through Thursday.