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ABC slate relies on outside studios

Eight of the 11 new shows lined up for next season are made by other companies. Warner Bros. is producing five, 20th Century Fox is providing two, and one comes from Sony Pictures and Mark Burnett.

May 20, 2009|Meg James

NEW YORK — For years, the ABC television network seeded its prime-time schedule with shows produced by the company's production studio. Walt Disney Co.'s "keep it in the family" approach aimed to ensure that if any of the shows hit it big, as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" have, the company would reap the financial rewards.

But times are tougher, and the Disney-owned network is breaking with tradition. On Tuesday, ABC rolled out its slate of new shows -- and most come from outside suppliers.

The move might even save money for ABC because most shows fail, losing millions for the studios that produce them. Even successful programs typically lose money until there are enough episodes to sell as syndicated reruns.

Of the 11 new shows that won spots on ABC's schedule for next season, eight are produced by other companies. The other three are financed by Disney.

"We are always going to pick the best shows," Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment Group, said during a news conference to discuss the fall lineup. "We have to be in business with the outside community."

Warner Bros. Television is producing five of the new shows for ABC. 20th Century Fox Television is providing two, and one comes from Sony Pictures Television and producer Mark Burnett.

"ABC is scheduling the best shows that they have regardless of ownership," said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television. "The Fox network does the same thing."

Not everyone is so inclusive. General Electric Co.'s NBC network has adopted a more inward-focused philosophy than it had previously. Six of its seven new programs, including the prime-time Jay Leno show, will be produced by NBC's Universal Media Studios. Similarly, CBS Corp.'s broadcast network picked up six new shows this week, and four of them will come from CBS Paramount Television.

CBS, which relies heavily on advertising revenue, is trying to diversify its income sources. The international and domestic syndication sales of such shows as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" have been a boon to the company's bottom line.

In an interesting twist, CBS plans to pick up a show it produces, "Medium," which was canceled Tuesday by NBC. Keeping the show alive on CBS will allow the company to increase the number of episodes it has in the bank, improving its payday on cable.

Another just-canceled NBC show, "My Name Is Earl," which is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, might get a new lease on life on the Fox network.

Last year, ABC's McPherson rescued one of his favorite shows, "Scrubs," which he developed when he was in charge of ABC's television studio. When NBC canceled "Scrubs," McPherson put it on ABC.

"There is a huge business for us in ownership of our own programming," McPherson said. "But if we get into a place where everybody is only producing for themselves, it's going to be quite limiting."

Networks have struggled for years to find the right mix. Before the mid-1990s, federal rules prohibited networks from airing their own shows for profit, so they had to do business with outside suppliers. Tired of nurturing hits that made billions of dollars for independent producers, media companies successfully lobbied to have the ban lifted. That triggered a wave of consolidations, including Disney's acquisition of ABC, as TV studios looked to secure outlets for their shows by buying networks.

In recent years, the networks have turned to their internal studios for their shows because they wanted to bank the profits from those programs. And they didn't want to be held hostage by an outside studio when a show took off in the ratings. For years, NBC smarted over the enormous checks it had to write to Warner Bros. Television for such hits as "ER," "The West Wing" and "Friends."

Come next season, if the economy improves, McPherson might rely more heavily on his own studio for new shows.

This year McPherson gained responsibility for ABC's television studio after years of butting heads with the previous chief.

Now, he said, ABC would operate under a "singular vision both creatively and business-wise."


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