Elizabeth Guider Reports: Buyers Take to New Warner Bros. Comedies


PREMIUM: “It exceeded all our expectations.” That’s how one of Europe’s top program buyers, ProSiebenSat.1’s Rüdiger Böss, described his reaction to the pilot for Young Sheldon, one among seven series that Warner Bros. screened on its lot Monday morning for foreign clients.

“It was funny and had heart, and the cast was all we could hope for,” the head of the acquisitions team at the German station group went on to tell World Screen Newsflash during the lunch break on the backlot.

Several other attendees also praised the casting, most notably the youngster who plays Sheldon Cooper at 9, Iain Armitage, who came of age, as it were, in HBO’s Big Little Lies.

The prequel to the hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory was a big bet by writer-producer Chuck Lorre and by Peter Roth, the long-time president and chief content officer for the Warner Bros. Television Group.

If the reaction in the packed theater was any indication, the new show is likely to be snapped up and paired with the original in a number of key overseas territories. Almost every joke landed and elicited out-loud laughs from the assembled, even though English for most of them is a second or third language. (Most U.S. series are eventually dubbed for their audiences in major territories.)

Admittedly, Böss’s company enjoys an ongoing volume deal with Warner Bros. and thus contractually must take an unspecified number of series each year from that major (as well as from three other similar tie-ups, with Disney, CBS and Fox).

Still, Böss is not known for mincing his words. He did, for example, add that overall, having been already to three or four other studios to view new shows, he and his team had not yet seen “an undisputed standout.” Still, as far as Warner Bros.’ output was concerned, he believed his company, which operates several different platforms targeting different demos, could work nicely with a number of the shows on offer, including another comedy Me, Myself & I for CBS and an hour-long drama called Deception for ABC.

Like other broadcast players in Germany and across Europe, the Teutonic station group increasingly slots its own home-grown fare as well as occasional imports from Britain or Scandinavia in prime time and thus is becoming less reliant on U.S. shows for its evening schedules. This trend is taking hold at the same time that the production of fictional series in the U.S. has mushroomed to about 500 a year.

By anyone’s standard it’s a buyer’s market, and what those buyers increasingly demand is the crème de la crème.

Böss’s assessments reflected the general reaction from the 450-odd buyers who gathered for the all-day event, which featured several other comedies that also went over fairly well.

A sampling by World Screen Newsflash of a dozen such buyers, ranging from Brazil to Belgium to China and beyond, suggested that interest in the comedies Me, Myself & I and another called Splitting Up Together (and to some extent for the drama Deception) was fairly widespread.

One buyer described the aforementioned drama as “a cross between Castle and The Mentalist, with magic thrown in,” but stressed he would need to see additional episodes before making a decision.

Another buyer, this one from a regional pay-TV service, opined that Splitting Up Together, which is based on a Danish format, came across as “sprightly and engaging,” and the lead actress (Jenna Fischer from The Office) was “delightful.” About Me, Myself & I, yet another buyer said it was “like This Is Us [NBC’s breakout hit from last season] but played for laughs rather than for tears.”

A couple of Latin buyers, both women, pointed to the wry take on Christian values in another comedy, By the Book, as having “real potential.”

Those off-the-cuff comments represent a notable departure from past years in which hour dramas have been the major focus of attention for buyers at Warner Bros. and have carried the day for the Burbank-based supplier. Think Person of Interest, Gotham, Blindspot and Lethal Weapon, to name only a few. As a general rule such dramas, especially procedurals, sell more widely and easily in the international market—and for far more than double the price tag on half-hours.

The only other drama screened Monday morning by Warner was Black Lightning (for The CW), which was described variously by attendees as “stunning to look at but too loud” or “clunky in the exposition but the hero’s costume was, well, electrifying.” (Only a 15-minute segment of the show was available to be viewed.)

Böss, who rarely minds being on the record, summed his group’s reaction to it thusly: “It takes superpowers to sit through all these superheroes now on the small screen. Enough already.”

Another indirect reason that Warner Bros. brought so many comedies to the party this go-round has to do with vertical integration. Two of its regular broadcast network clients Stateside, NBC and FOX, greenlit new series only from its sibling production units, shutting out product from Warner Bros. and other independent suppliers like Sony and Lionsgate.

Both Roth and the company’s distribution chieftain, Jeffrey Schlesinger, addressed the phenom head-on during their remarks to the overseas clients.

In putting the accent on the company’s strategy of being “in business with the best talent available,” Roth suggested that vertical integration could backfire for those who take it too far. “Independence,” he told the audience, allows you to have “a healthy distance” from the material and thus a greater ability to tweak it into the best possible shape.

He went on to extol the virtues of each of the new shows created under his aegis and the producers responsible for them, including the prolific Greg Berlanti (responsible for Deception and most of The CW schedule) and Bill Lawrence (responsible for Life Sentence, also for The CW). As for Young Sheldon, the production head called the half-hour “one of the best ideas and opportunities we’ve ever had.”

Asked by World Screen Newsflash how he felt about “the freeze-out” this go-round at FOX and NBC, Schlesinger was typically laconic, his tone bitingly bemused. “We’ll see how 100 percent ownership works out for them,” he offered, pointing out that ABC had done the same thing a couple of years ago but, given the lackluster results, has moved away from that stance. (The Alphabet did, in fact, pick up a couple of shows from Warner Bros. as well as from Sony and Lionsgate for the upcoming fall or midseason.)

The president of Warner Bros. Worldwide TV Distribution went on to point out that just nine of the 34 new scripted shows picked up by the five broadcasters were indeed from suppliers from outside their own folds.

Not that Warner brass is losing any sleep. In his rundown of all the ways in which the WB studio is still the number one supplier, Schlesinger put the emphasis on the top ratings across all platforms for all genres of returning Warner product, including strong performances abroad for series like freshmen Riverdale and Lethal Weapon.

“Not to mention we have the number one U.S. series and number one comedy around the world in Big Bang,” he continued.

Thus, Schlesinger wound up with the traditionally impressive stats which generally conclude his annual presentation to the gathering.

The studio can boast, he said, seven new scripted shows for the fall and 17 returning ones for a total of 24, or 20 hours—all for the five broadcast networks. Counting non-scripted fare (which includes top-rated The Voice on NBC) as well as new fiction (Claws and Krypton were screened in the afternoon session) for cablers like TNT and Syfy.

Warner Bros. is, he contended, the number one supplier in hours, half-hours, total scripted and total non-scripted, allowing the studio to still claim the status of number one overall supplier for 26 of the last 31 years.