YOU MAY recall that on Sundays last fall, the CW featured a lineup of shows that included "Online Nation," a reality series that . . .
Wait a minute, what am I talking about? Of course you don't recall. Hardly anyone watched CW on Sundays (not that other nights were much better). That's a big reason why this fall, the network, home of female-skewing fare such as the teen soap "Gossip Girl" and the reality perennial "America's Next Top Model," has handed over troublesome Sundays -- which represent a hefty chunk of its 13 hours a week of prime-time programming -- to an independent studio with close ties to a major Hollywood talent
Executives at CW, a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros., announced last month that the new Sunday lineup would be programmed and financed by a company called Media Rights Capital. Probably best known as a backer of the Oscar-nominated film "Babel," MRC has a reported $400 million per year to sink into various film and TV projects, thanks to big-ticket investors such as AT&T and Goldman Sachs. Its co-chief executive officer is Modi Wiczyk, a former agent at agency powerhouse Endeavor.
Beyond tossing a lifeline to the wheezing and coughing CW (KTLA-TV and many other stations owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times, run CW programming), the MRC deal is important because it offers another provisional model -- along with product placements and full-scale advertiser sponsorships -- of how network TV shows might be financed and developed in the future.
The MRC honchos made a point of taking their CW writer-producers on a recent tour of the major ad agencies to hear what advertisers want. It's the kind of maneuver that would have raised eyebrows as recently as a few years ago, when network producers at least liked to pretend they were free from advertiser intrusion. Today, it's not intrusion; it's "interaction."
So what kinds of shows did MRC come up with? It's a credible, if not earth-shattering, roster. Or at least it seems to be based on the program summaries, which is all we have at the moment. "Valentine Inc." is a one-hour comedy/drama about a matchmaking company, while "Easy Money" is described as a "quirky family drama" about the loan shark business. "Surviving Suburbia" is a traditional family sitcom (does the title give too much away?). "In Harm's Way" is a half-hour reality show about people doing dangerous work -- a concept that has been, one might say, well vetted in advance by many other similar-sounding series.
The scripted shows have already hired writing staffs and are midway through the casting process, executives say. The network has ordered 13 episodes of each.
Maybe the biggest surprise is that unlike the rest of the programming on the CW -- which is fairly obsessed with luring trend-conscious young women -- MRC is wooing a broader and thus somewhat older crowd of adults 18-49.
"It wouldn't make sense for us to go in there and try to do 'Gossip Girl'-type of programming," Keith Samples, a programming veteran who's heading MRC's TV efforts, told me. "They're doing that really great," he added, referring to CW executives.
Officials from the network and MRC are stingy with details of their financial arrangements. But essentially, MRC pays CW a fee and agrees to assume the costs for the shows. In exchange, it gets the ad revenue and, its partners hope, money from DVDs and other ancillary income.
There's virtually no way CW can lose money on the deal -- although the network might also see relatively little upside if one of the new shows becomes a big hit.
"It's a pretty unique structure," Samples, a veteran of the late Lorimar Productions TV studio, said.
Well, "unique" might not be the right word. In some respects, the deal is similar to a "time buy," which is common in the world of sports TV and involves a network renting out its distribution apparatus to a producer of programming, which then sells the ad revenue. UPN -- which merged with the WB to form CW two years ago -- initially programmed its Thursday nights in much this way with the wresting extravaganza "WWE Smackdown!" before taking over the ad sales itself.
Endeavor partly owns MRC, and some observers, noting the connection, have suggested the studio is a de facto agency subsidiary whose unacknowledged purpose is to reap a return on clients' projects beyond the typical 10% commission. (Under California law, a talent agency cannot produce or keep an ownership stake in entertainment product.) A spokeswoman for MRC emphasized that the agency and MRC are separate entities.
In any event, the CW roster sounds like it was spreadsheeted to within an inch of its life. During an interview, Samples and Wiczyk salted their speech with MBA lingo about "mitigating" deficits and content "pipelines"; the noun "space" was dutifully employed to mean a certain part of the market. When Samples volunteered that all of the CW shows have "different risk profiles," Wiczyk broke in: "Exactly. That was well put."
The show budgets will be "significant," Samples said, but not extravagant: "We're not doing 'Lost' or [Fox's new drama] ‘Fringe’ or 'Heroes.' " All three are good examples of expensive network series.
"We're of the belief that you're not going to measure success, or even quality of production necessarily, by the bottom right hand corner of the budget," Samples added. "You can make good shows at reasonable prices. When I say reasonable, I'm comparing ourselves to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' and 'Saving Grace' and 'Rescue Me.' All very solid, great-looking shows."
Sounds promising. But can the CW programs deliver?
Well, that is the $400 million question, isn't it?
"It's always hard to know what shows are going to be like when you haven't seen any film," said Shari Anne Brill, an analyst at ad firm Carat USA. Brill noted that the CW is already getting much more attention for its fall update on "Beverly Hills, 90210."
It's also not impossible to foresee a partnership like that between CW and MRC fraying as time wears on and business realities take hold. When I asked whether the CW still maintained ultimate control over the content that went out over its air and how disputes over such issues might be resolved, Wiczyk quashed the issue: "You're getting into areas we're not comfortable contemplating," he said.
A CW spokesman, when asked for comment, responded with a written statement from chief operating officer John Maata, hailing the MRC partnership as "a highly collaborative strategic alliance that will provide us with high-quality original programming on Sundays, one of the most competitive nights on television."
If it does nothing else, the MRC takeover of CW's Sundays has helped solidify the growing bonds between show creators and Madison Avenue. Viewers can expect to see much more of that in the near future.
Samples said writer-producers weren't required to do the recent advertiser meet-and-greet but all eagerly attended anyway. "They all had a really great time and came away from it feeling like they had a much better understanding of the business of television," he said.
Yes, these days you just never know when a script might need to alter its risk profile.
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