Gearing up for the upfronts

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
May 5, 2015

Greenlight

E! is following up its first drama, The Royals (pictured), with a new project called The Arrangement
E! is following up its first drama, The Royals (pictured), with a new project called The Arrangement
Over the coming months, this column will provide updates on new scripted productions from around the world. But this week the focus is firmly on the US, which is moving into one of the most important periods of the year from a commissioning perspective.

Known as the ‘upfronts’ season, this is when US TV networks reveal their upcoming programming plans to major advertisers. As part of the process, they announce which drama pilots they will be taking forward to series. Although this is predominantly an American affair, the significance of upfronts to the international market is that successful US shows often also go on to be ratings successes in other territories.

Arguably, this year’s upfronts have an added significance, because international buyers are crying out for new long-running procedural dramas that can do a similar job in their schedules to the likes of CSI or Grey’s Anatomy.

One of the first networks to have unveiled any series commissions this year is NBC, which has ordered three shows for the 2015-16 season. These are conspiracy thriller Blindspot, medical drama Heartbreaker and Chicago Med, the second spin-off from Chicago Fire following the 2014 launch of Chicago PD. Between them, the three Chicago series now cover procedural stories based around firefighters, paramedics and a police department. There is scope to create crossover stories between the three, with high-profile cast moving from show to show on occasion.

The Chicago series may not get the kind of critical attention that is generated by shows like Breaking Bad, House Of Cards and Mad Men, but they are of interest to international channel buyers, which see them as solid schedule performers. It’s also worth noting that they are all from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of NBC’s hugely successful Law & Order SVU franchise (and spin-offs).

NBC has commissioned Chicago Med, a second spin-off from Chicago Fire (pictured)
NBC has commissioned Chicago Med, a second spin-off from Chicago Fire (pictured)

The other three of the big four US networks, Fox, CBS and ABC, have not – at the time of writing – officially confirmed which pilots they will take to series. But there are usually rumours that point in the direction of one series over another. These rumours are often the result of strong screen tests, but they can also come from the producers of pilots being given the go-ahead to start staffing up.

One show that seems certain to get the greenlight is Fox’s Minority Report. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, it is set in the same world as the Tom Cruise movie of the same name (which itself is based on a story by Philip K Dick). Another Fox show being tipped for a series order is Frankenstein, about a corrupt ex-cop who is brought back from the dead and has the chance to live his new life in a more morally upstanding way.

Minority Report isn’t the only pilot with a movie background. Two of CBS’s pilots that stand a good chance of going to series are Limitless and Rush Hour, both of which are spin-offs from movies. Among ABC pilots that still stand a good chance of going to series is Runner, based on the format of a Turkish series called The End.

As outlined above, the big four networks generally make pilots and use these as the basis to select series. By contrast, cable networks don’t usually bother with pilots, preferring to go straight to series with ideas they like. However, as cable networks have invested more in scripted content, their upfront announcements have also taken on extra significance for the drama community.

Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, is being adapted for TV
Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, is being adapted for TV

This year, for example, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc has revealed that History Channel is developing a Vietnam War drama called Boys of ’67 (an A+E Studios production in association with Head First Productions and Muse Entertainment).

A+E Networks has also taken the interesting decision to simulcast BBC series War & Peace and a revamp of Roots across its three main channels, A+E, History and Lifetime. This is a significant development for the drama business because, if it works, it may signal one of two things –a reduction in the amount of shows needed by the big cable channel owners, or the ability to pool budgets to make even more epic drama series. Either way, it’s a model that centralises power with the channels.

Also revealed this week is that cable channel E! is following up its first drama, The Royals, with a new project called The Arrangement. Written by Jonathan Abrahams, The Arrangement tells the story of a beautiful young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead. Kevin Plunkett, senior VP of scripted programming at E!, said the script “juxtaposes a very public Hollywood romance with darker, more nefarious elements.”

The pilot-to-series approach outlined earlier in this column is still typical of the way the big four US networks build dramas. But it’s no longer the only business model on the table. NBCUniversal International Television Production, part of the same company as NBC, recently announced a deal with TF1 in France and RTL in Germany (two leading free-to-air broadcasters) to develop, finance and produce procedurals directly for the international market.

Minority Report is one of several films being reimagined for the small screen
Minority Report is one of several films being reimagined for the small screen

The significance of this model is that TF1 and RTL, which are big buyers of US procedural dramas, will no longer need to wait for a show to get the US seal of approval before it goes to series. The model is a potential risk for NBCUITV, which will have a significant budget deficit to cover. But it will be banking on its ability to sell any resultant series back into the US or around the world (possibly to its own thematic channels). It is an approach that is similar to what Sony Pictures Television did with Hannibal and The Firm.

The aim of the alliance is to produce three series over the next two years. One key difference from the traditional model is that these projects will go straight to series, instead of passing through a pilot phase. Again, this will help take some uncertainty out of the process for TF1 and RTL (though it does mean greater final exposure to a drama that might not ultimately work). Another advantage of this model for TF1 and RTL is that they will have control of all rights in their own territories. This avoids situations where they are forced to share transmission windows with increasingly influential SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

Away from the upfronts frenzy for a moment, one of the week’s most interesting projects from outside the US is Cleverman. A six-part drama for ABC TV in Australia, the show has just entered production in Sydney. It sees a group of non-humans battling for survival in a near future where humans feel inferior to them and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Game of Thrones' Iain Glen is set to star in Cleverman
Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen is set to star in Cleverman

Cleverman, which stars Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), is an official Australian/New Zealand co-production between Goalpost Pictures Australia and Pukeko Pictures. At time of writing, Red Arrow International has just come on board as global distributor.

“Cleverman is a bold and ambitious project, and must be one of the most original drama series to be currently in production anywhere in the world,” said Amelie Kienlin, executive producer and VP of scripted acquisitions at Red Arrow.

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