Elizabeth Guider Reports: Screenings Kick Off in L.A.


Talking dogs and time travel are out. Brash military-minded concepts and techno-tinged contemporary themes are in, grappling with national (or personal) security issues. Call it the Trump effect.

Think S.W.A.T., SEAL Team, Instinct and Wisdom of the Crowd (all for CBS), Valor (for The CW) and The Brave (for NBC).

There’s also a lot of magic and mystery, as in the drama Deception (from Warner Bros., for ABC) and Ten Days in the Valley toplining Kyra Sedgwick (from Lionsgate, also for ABC). On a different note, Reverie with Sarah Shahi (for NBC) and My, Myself & I (for CBS) are both partially set in future decades. Thanks to prolific producer Greg Berlanti, a number of comic book-inspired series, aimed principally at the younger demos, are also in store.

Whether there is among these hopefuls the next bona fide breakout hit à la This Is Us remains to be seen. Meanwhile, a clutch of foreign buyers who attended the showcases in the Big Apple Monday through Wednesday before segueing to Los Angeles say they were variously “struck” or “pleasantly surprised” by the trailers for Jason Katims’ Rise, toplining up-and-comer (and hard to spell) Auli’i Cravalho (from and for NBC), Fox’s space dramedy The Orville from Seth MacFarlane, which one seasoned foreign buyer described as “The Office meets Star Trek meets Doctor Who,” CBS’s Big Bang prequel Young Sheldon, and ABC’s latest Shonda Rhimes entry For the People. (The CW took the wraps off its new grid today in New York, and all of its shows are from its two owners, Warner Bros. and CBS.)

All of the above-mentioned are among the new fall titles that will vie for the attention (and dollars) of overseas program buyers during the week-long sales bazaar known as the L.A. Screenings.

That marathon event comes on the heels of the upfront presentations to advertisers in New York where the five broadcast nets put the emphasis on stability over sizzle, tears over titillation, broad appeal over narrowly targeted audience segments. Whether that works in terms of turning around the ratings declines at all the webs and of reversing a similar, if less steep, downturn in their advertising revenues remains to be seen.

The event unspools in one of the more disruptive moments in global media history, one in which newcomer platforms are discombobulating established players, in which Brexit is making the British contingent warier and the euro currency less strong, and in which the unpredictable Trump presidency is unsettling politics and media around the world.

Also not lost on the overseas folks is the fact that U.S. broadcasters are increasingly playing a conservative, close to the vest game, in that most of the shows network honchos renewed or greenlit for the first time are in-house assets—or shared co-productions with an outside originator as a prerequisite for said series to get on the air. Privileging the projects from their own corporate sibling production studios, it can be argued, occasionally nudges out equally interesting material from rivals or from indie suppliers.

Most notably, Warner Bros., the top supplier to the five U.S. broadcast webs for the last 20 years, is having to push harder than ever to get (or keep) its series on air at the four major networks. Its new pickups at NBC this go-round are all non-scripted contenders: no hour dramas, no comedies.

As for the off-again, on-again bubble show Timeless, Sony, the other key indie supplier alongside Warner Bros., eventually relinquished a piece of the action to the Peacock in order to keep the show on the air.

In fact, almost all the outside supplied shows to the networks have had to split rights in order to get their content on air. Such behind-the-scenes machinations may not be as crucial to the foreign contingent but, as one overseas buyer put it to the Newsflash: “We’re spending a lot of money in Hollywood: every bit of intelligence helps us decide between one show or another.”

Telling too are the deals for The Brave (for NBC) and Wisdom of the Crowd (for CBS), both of which are being re-versioned from Israeli formats courtesy of prolific producer Keshet Media Group (the company behind the Prisoners of War format that became Showtime’s Homeland). Another show, Warner’s midseason comedy Splitting Up Together (for ABC), is cookie-cut from a Danish original, while Sony’s The Good Doctor (for ABC) is based on a Korean original.

Some 1,500 international executives are today in the air or recovering from jet lag in order to fan out over the various Hollywood studio lots beginning in earnest this weekend to view and in some cases fork out for the new shows that will grace the prime broadcast schedules Stateside. The Screenings are the first occasion for foreign buyers to kick the tires on these new shows, and to some extent, the event has upstaged April’s MIPTV in Cannes as the key market for top-tier American fare.

Traditionally, Disney gets its so-called “International Upfront” rolling on Sunday evening, when the company trots out its top executives and star talent to introduce the upcoming schedule for ABC (as well as the film studio’s movie slate and new material for its cabler Freeform). Then for the following five days buyers traipse from one studio to another to screen new product and to huddle with their own staffs to compare notes. They may even sign on the bottom line for some show if it’s hot, and competitive bidding kicks in.

Since buyers from abroad are being buffeted by the same disruptive headwinds from digital upstarts as Stateside, that may translate into a more cautious approach when it comes to acquiring product. They will also have to assess the appetite among their own audience(s) for reboots and reversions—think NBC’s Will & Grace, ABC’s Roseanne, The CW’s Dynasty and CBS’s S.W.A.T., as well as their predilections for musical fare, which, following NBC’s lead, others have started to embrace.

On the other hand, foreign buyers may be reassured by new offerings from reliably solid uber-producers housed at each broadcaster’s sibling studio. At the Alphabet, for example, Shonda Rhimes is fielding a legal drama For the People, which purportedly mirrors her long-running medical show Grey’s Anatomy; her shingle Shondaland is also responsible for Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Still Star-Crossed, a period piece which was introduced only a few weeks ago here. And just the other day a firefighters spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy was snapped up by the Alphabet with a straight to series order.

Looked at from another perspective, an unusual number of freshmen series managed to hold on to slots for the upcoming fall season on the five broadcast networks; and additional real estate this fall will be taken up by non-scripted fare, including ABC’s relaunch of American Idol and spin-offs of The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars. This means there are fewer scripted pilots from among which foreign program buyers have to sift.

To wit: Out of 75-odd fictional projects pitched to the five networks during the spring, only 45 scripted contenders have gotten the nod for the upcoming season or midseason. Among those are two dozen hour dramas, which are the most prized (and costly) purchases of traditional linear overseas stations, the rest being half-hour comedies. In addition, the networks will be featuring during the upcoming season a few music-inflected or non-scripted shows, including the return of American Idol (this time to ABC), the Peacock’s latest live production, Jesus Christ Superstar, and FOX’s similar treatments for A Christmas Story and Rent.

Perhaps more important than the freshmen cancellations are the handful of strong series which have wound up their runs. Most of them were mainstays on foreign stations as well as Stateside and hence leave sizable holes to be filled on various overseas schedules. Those closing the curtain on their runs include Bones (12 seasons on Fox), The Vampire Diaries (eight seasons on the CW) and 2 Broke Girls (six seasons on CBS).

As always, several highly touted series from a year ago did not manage a toehold during the just-wrapped season and have gotten the proverbial ax, including several of the more gimmicky ones and others which boasted top-tier TV talent. Among the fallen are two time-travel dramas Time After Time (from Warner Bros. for ABC), Making History (for FOX), and Frequency (from Warner Bros. for The CW). Also getting scratched are CBS’s drama with Katherine Heigl, Doubt, the visually stunning but plodding Emerald City (on NBC), No Tomorrow (from CBS TV Studios, for The CW) and FOX’s quirky Son of Zorn and baseball dramedy Pitch.

What foreign buyers can rely on are renewals for franchise shows from each of the networks’ stabled uber-producers: The Eye is bringing back the three iterations of its reliable NCIS skein and Dick Wolf’s trio of Chicago hours, as in Fire, P.D. and Med, as well as veteran stalwart Law & Order: SVU, are all returning to the Peacock. Wolf is also providing an eight-parter for the fall about the infamous Menendez murders; Chicago Justice, meanwhile, was cut after just one season. Shonda Rhimes’ trio of sudsers on ABC (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder) likewise made the cut. (Scandal, however, is ending its run with its seventh season). But the Shondaland dramedy The Catch, toplining Mireille Enos, did not catch on with viewers and is not being renewed for a third season. The CW meanwhile is home to a gaggle of shows, old and new, from WB-based writer-producer Greg Berlanti, though a couple of his freshmen contenders did not make it through to a second season. (Still, Berlanti is the Norman Lear or Jerry Bruckheimer of today’s TV ecosystem, with eight series on one or another network or cable outlet.)

All of this said, every foreign broadcaster has its own set of criteria that helps determine what U.S. series make sense for their platforms back home. In some cases, key broadcasters in major territories have ongoing arrangements with one or more Hollywood studio and are obligated to take a set number of series each season; shows that don’t go to those regular partners abroad are licensed on the open market. Canadian buyers are, for reasons of signal spillover, quickest on the draw, scooping up among them the virtual entirety of U.S. series while in town for the Screenings; the Brits are their opposite number: taking their time over the next six months to cherry pick for their stations. Unless there’s something buzzy, in which case all bets are off.