Tag Archives: Upfronts

Upfronts 2016: Networks perform the safety dance

As the dust settles on the US networks’ Upfronts week, Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the new shows set to hit our screens in 2016/17.

In the main, innovation appeared to be in short supply at last week’s Upfronts – reboots, legal and cop dramas and the dispiriting trend of making TV versions of hit movies are the order of the day for the nets.

Despite the poor performance of Minority Report, Rush Hour and Limitless (which were all cancelled after one season), we’ll see series versions of films including Lethal Weapon (Fox), Training Day (CBS), Taken (NBC), The Exorcist (Fox) and lesser-known properties Frequency (The CW) and Time After Time (ABC).

Sci-fi thriller Frequency was a medium-sized hit for Dennis Quaid (who’ll star in season two of Sky Atlantic’s upcoming Fortitude) in 2000, while Time After Time was released way back in 1979, with Malcolm MacDowell and David Warner as HG Wells and Jack the Ripper respectively, Wells pursuing the Ripper through time to then present day San Francisco.

NBC cablenet USA Network is taking a punt on Shooter, based on the 2007 Mark Wahlberg actioner, starring Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions, McGruber, The Lincoln Lawyer).

Turner’s TNT also unveiled its adaptation of acclaimed crime drama Animal Kingdom, with Ellen Barkin (The Big Easy, Happyish, Ocean’s 13) taking the lead role as matriarch Smurf.

Fox seems to be the home for budding Satanists, with a series reworking of William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist joining a schedule that includes Lucifer (returning for a second series) and reality format Hell’s Kitchen. Incidentally, A&E’s Damien (based on The Omen movies) will not be returning for a second season.

The Exorcist
Will Fox’s The Exorcist be able to shock and scare in a 21.00 slot?

It will be a challenge for Fox to deliver a 21.00 network show that will bear any comparison to the original X-rated Exorcist movie, which still has the power to shock.

To a lesser extent, this also applies to the 20.00 slot given to Lethal Weapon (pictured top), which presumably won’t give the character of detective Roger Murtaugh (played in the series by Damon Wayans Sr) the chance to exclaim his signature catchphrase, ‘I’m too old for this shit.’

‘Too old for this stuff’ it is then. Gosh, darn, as they say.

Still, as long as there are successful film-to-TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, M*A*S*H, Fargo, Bates Motel (a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) and Stargate, there will always be the temptation for producers to exploit their IP library and rely on name recognition attract a least a high initial audience.

On a similar tack, series revivals are also in vogue – coming off the back of the successful X-Files (Fox) six-part run and the not-so-popular Heroes Reborn (NBC). The 2016/17 season will see the return of Prison Break (Fox) and MacGyver (CBS), with Lucas Till (X-Men: First Class, Apocalypse) in the titular role.

After the original 1939 movie, 1985’s Return to Oz, James Franco’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), the Sci-Fi channel miniseries Tin Man (2007) and The Witches of Oz (2011) comes NBC’s Emerald City.

Promising a darker take on Frank L Baum’s Oz novels, Emerald City boast the distinctive visuals of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) with a cast lead by an on-a-roll Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Jurassic World) as the wizard and Ardia Ajona (True Detective) as the now adult Dorothy.

MacGyver
MacGyver, coming to CBS, is one of a number of series reboots

Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding Chicago franchise (NBC) will see Justice added to Chicagos Fire, PD and Med. Funny or Die has already parodied the meta-sizing brand with Chicago Sanitation.

NBC’S hit show The Blacklist has spawned the spin-off/’companion piece’ The Blacklist: Redemption, starring Famke Janssen (X-Men, Taken), while 24 gets a reboot with the 12-episode 24: Legacy. Corey Hawkins (The Walking Dead, Straight Outta Compton) tops the bill as former army ranger Eric Carter.

Time travel has emerged as a fashionable sub-genre, with the aforementioned movie-to-TV shows Time After Time and Frequency, together with Timeless (NBC) and comedy Making History (Fox).

The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare has prompted a number of dramas, including Still Star-Crossed (ShondaLand) for ABC and Will for cablenet TNT; while in the UK there is the Ben Elton comedy Upstart Crow (BBC2) and last year’s little-seen BBC Film comedy Bill.

Among the slew of formula network dramas, there are a number of interesting shows that could stand out. Kiefer Sutherland stars as the US secretary of housing and development in Designated Survivor (ABC) who finds himself propelled to the position of acting president after the president, vice-president and much of the cabinet are blown up by a terrorist attack at the State of the Union address.

Midnight Texas (NBC) is adapted from the novels by True Blood (HBO) author Charlaine Harris and helmed by Mr Robot’s Neil Arden Oplev. The official synopsis states: “From vampires and witches to psychics and hit men, Midnight is a mysterious safe haven for those who are different. As the town members fight off outside pressures from rowdy biker gangs, ever-suspicious cops and their own dangerous pasts, they band together and form a strong and unlikely family.”

Network censors won’t be permitting any True Blood-style boundary-pushing, so the show may lack the edge expected by fans of the novels.

24: Legacy
24: Legacy stars The Walking Dead’s Corey Hawkins

Fox’s Shots Fired could well prove controversial in this US presidential election year, concerning as it does a racially charged shooting in North Carolina, with memories still very fresh after Ferguson, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. A strong cast includes Sanaa Lathan (Boss, Nip/Tuck), Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets, Mad About You), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, W, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Will Patton (Armageddon, Falling Skies) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood).

The CW’s mid-season Riverdale is a subversive Twin Peaks-style take on the characters from the Archie comics – something that could either catch fire or fall flat. The presence of showrunner Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) gives Riverdale a fighting chance.

Turning briefly to the networks’ cable and SVoD siblings, NBC’s Syfy teased David S Goyer’s (Blade trilogy, Dark Knight trilogy, Constantine, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice) long-gestating Superman prequel Krypton.

The show concerns the struggles of Superman’s House of El family in the 200 years before the destruction of Clark Kent’s homeworld.

Unlike Gotham (Fox), where viewers have at least heard of many of the characters before the arrival of Batman on the scene, it might be a big ask for the audience to take much interest in the travails of Kal-El’s grandfather and his various Kryptonian enemies.

Presumably the forebears of Superman villain General Zod will feature at some point in the show – as either foes or allies of The House of El. Though there are echoes, perhaps, of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, which lasted one season back in 2011.

CBS’s own SVoD service CBS All Access debuted the logo and some space effects footage of Bryan Fuller’s (American Gods, Hannibal) Star Trek prequel series, rumoured to be an anthology show, with each possible season covering a different Enterprise crew and era.

Turner’s Kevin Reilly also revealed his ambitions for the family of channels, with comedy-based TBS continuing its quest for younger viewers and TNT upping the ante with a number of drama projects, including an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s best-selling period crime novel The Alienist and Good Behaviour, with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery starring as a con artist and thief, based on Blake Crouch’s (Wayward Pines) Letty Dobesh books.

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End of season report card

How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers
How To Get Away With Murder has finished its second run but lost a lot of viewers

At ABC, the story of 2015/16 is that established titles continued to thrive but new ones didn’t really catch on. The highest rating shows (in this order, based on 18-49 viewing) were Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Goldbergs, The Middle and How To Get Away With Murder. Of these, the newest is HTGAWM, which has just ended its second season. Grey’s Anatomy, by contrast, has just completed its 12th season.

This year’s figures show the importance of producer Shonda Rhimes to the network, since three of these titles come from her stable. But they also suggest that ABC cannot be complacent on this front.

HTGAWM has seen its audience fall from around 14 million when it launched two years ago to five million at the end of the current run. That suggests it will need to start turning things around to survive beyond season three. Similarly, Rhimes’ latest show The Catch has failed to deliver for ABC, ranking 17th among all scripted titles at time of writing, but ABC saw enough promise to renew it for a second season nonetheless.

Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline
Quantico did enough to secure a renewal but has seen its audience decline

Of the new shows that came into the ABC schedule last autumn, the one that made the most noise was Quantico. The show started well and secured a renewal but has seen its audience slide across the season. Most worryingly for ABC there was no last-episode uplift – a common trait with dramas as audiences tune in to see how things resolve. This doesn’t augur well for the second season, which will kick off without much momentum. The biggest flops of the year were Wicked City and Of Kings & Prophets (which should make networks shy of biblical stories for a while).

Over at NBC, the top six (18-49s) were Blindspot, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago PD and Superstore. Four of these are from Dick Wolf, NBC’s equivalent of ABC’s Rhimes.

Wolf’s success aside, Blindspot is undoubtedly NBC’s big success story this year. While it didn’t achieve the highest absolute ratings on the channel, it did come out number one among 18-49s. True, ratings for the back half of the series are some way down on the show’s strong debut — but they have stayed pretty consistent.

The Blacklist looks set to put in a strong fourth season
The Blacklist looks set for a strong fourth season

The Blacklist didn’t make the top six but it would have been if we were looking at total viewers. The show, starring James Spader, is now a scheduling stalwart having finished three seasons and can be relied on to have a solid fourth season too. Grimm only ranked as the 14th best show but still secured a sixth-season renewal.

Of the network’s other new shows, Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shades of Blue had a decent first year, with its audience stabilising and starting to rise in the second half of the season. Disappointments included Game of Silence, The Player and Truth Be Told.

The ratings on CBS are significantly higher than those on ABC and NBC, when viewed in totality. The top six in the 2015/16 season were The Big Bang Theory, NCIS (both juggernauts), Life in Pieces, Criminal Minds, Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans, although it’s worth noting that numbers seven to 10 (Mom, Supergirl, 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly) would have fared well on the other networks.

Stability has been key to CBS’s success, with The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Criminal Minds all extremely long-running series. The latter two have also spawned successful spin-offs in the shape of NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.

Criminal Minds remains one of CBS's leading shows
Criminal Minds remains one of CBS’s leading shows

In terms of new shows, the big success of the year has been the new comedy Life in Pieces. It benefited from being scheduled after The Big Bang Theory — but even so its performance has been excellent. So it’s no surprising that, at time of writing, it has just been renewed for a second season by CBS.

Another show that tends to go under the radar internationally but is doing a great job for CBS is Scorpion, which just completed season two. The show, which is about a group of computer experts who tackle high-tech threats to the US, hasn’t received especially good reviews. But its ratings are as good as most dramas on the US networks, which explains why it has also been renewed.

CBS’s new dramas have been more problematic. Limitless started off well but has drifted badly in the second half of its first season. Within the next few days it could find itself axed, a situation that would have been unthinkable back in the autumn. Also struggling is another movie spin-off, Rush Hour, which is right at the bottom end of the CBS ratings this season.

Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum on CBS
Limitless was unable to maintain its momentum

Supergirl also ran out of steam in the second half of its debut run, but has been renewed for a second season as part of a deal that sees the show move to The CW, where it will probably fit in nicely alongside top-rating shows like The Flash and Arrow.

And then there is Fox, whose top six scripted shows in terms of 18-49s are Empire, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Lucifer and Gotham. The success of Empire has been well documented while the revival of The X-Files proved to be a good idea. Lucifer is one one of the top performing new series although, like many of its contemporaries, it saw a significant decline in its later episodes. However, it still managed to secure itself a renewal from Fox.

Also worth mentioning is Rosewood. Although the show doesn’t make the top six in terms of 18-49 ratings, its headline audience of 4.88 million means it is actually the third highest show in terms of total viewers. Echoing Life in Pieces, the show was boosted by airing after Empire but it has held up pretty well. After a mid-season slump it is bouncing back and has secured a renewal.

Empire has remained an established hit for Fox
Empire has remained an established hit for Fox

So now we move into Upfronts season, the time of the year when the networks announce new programmes.

The volume of renewals means there aren’t many berths available for new shows. But the networks should keep one thing in mind: with series like Empire, Rosewood, Lucifer, Blindspot, The Goldbergs, Life in Pieces and Scorpion doing well, maybe they should focus more on original ideas than movie-to-TV extensions, which aren’t doing especially well.

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Gearing up for the upfronts

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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