If there was ever a case of good news-bad news for the television production business, it occurred this week, following the proposed mergers of Walt Disney Co. with Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. with CBS Inc.
The good news, many producers said Wednesday, is that CBS will return to the hands of broadcasters. TV program suppliers will benefit because the network’s recently named president of entertainment--Leslie Moonves, who has strong ties in the production community--could receive an infusion of cash to spread around and lift his struggling network in the ratings.
“You have to assume this will be exciting and productive, because you have a buyer who has a plan for the future and a broadcasting philosophy,” said Steven Bochco, co-creator of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and a new ABC legal drama called “Murder One.” “Westinghouse will be divesting themselves from a lot of other enterprises to strongly focus on their broadcasting empire.”
The bad news is that ABC will be in the hands of a competitive program supplier, which could eventually take work away from other studios and producers--although Disney and ABC executives insist that won’t happen.
“Everyone’s a little concerned about Disney and ABC, because Disney is going to want to provide all the programming, and that’s going to hurt the independents and” major studios, said Aaron Spelling, historically television’s most prolific independent producer. His current series include Fox’s “Beverly Hills 90210" and “Melrose Place.”
In a business built upon relationships, those relationships have perhaps never been more important than now. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced such high-profile fare as “Gypsy” for CBS and “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Camermeyer Story” for NBC, just last month signed a three-year production deal to produce “big event” movies and series for Disney.
“On one hand, I’m very excited about the prospect of having a Disney deal at this point, with Disney owning ABC,” Zadan said. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t want it to stand in the way of us selling a show to CBS, NBC or Fox. That’s very important to us, to have an open door at all the other networks.”
Most producers interviewed Wednesday said they believe ABC will continue to buy programming from outside sources. The only questions were how much and for how long.
“These are two of the best-run companies in the country [Disney and ABC], and it would be incredibly shortsighted of them to risk destroying a network by programming only one supplier’s shows,” said Paul Junger Witt, a longtime comedy producer whose current series include NBC’s “The John Larroquette Show.”
Still, he acknowledged: “When push comes to shove, if they’re in a room setting the schedule and they can’t make up their mind between two equal shows, they might go with the Disney show. But even then, they’d have to consider how that would be perceived in the creative community.”
Putting a further squeeze on TV producers is the fact that ABC has already made a number of series commitments to several production companies, including Brillstein-Grey Communications and DreamWorks.
“When you add in Disney [to these], that doesn’t leave a lot of available time periods,” said Fred Silverman, executive producer of CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder” and a former president of NBC.
“This whole trend puts the independent producer into a producer-for-hire situation,” said Tim Johnson, who produces “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” as a co-production with CBS. “You’re not going to own your movie anymore; you’re not going to own your series. They’re going to want to have a piece of it. They’ll handle all the distribution. They’ll want a gross-profit deal, rather than giving the movie back to the producer after a couple runs on the network.”
Dick Wolf, the executive producer of NBC’s “Law & Order” and Fox’s “New York Undercover,” is less concerned about the Disney deal because Disney has not been active in the hourlong drama category, specializing instead in sitcoms such as ABC’s “Home Improvement” and “Ellen.” But he said the creators of children’s programming have reason to be worried.
“I think Disney will control the entire Saturday morning schedule,” Wolf said. “That’s their bailiwick in entertainment, and they’ve already said they intend to put Disney shows there.”
In the meantime, there’s always CBS to go to, as long as Westinghouse--or whoever winds up with the network--lets Moonves do the job he was hired to, several producers concurred.
“The last year or so, CBS has been a very confused place,” Zadan said, “and producers did nothing but complain about how unhappy they were trying to do business there. Now everyone seems to be very excited again about CBS, and it seems like a place to go to take chances and risk. For producers, there’s a great opportunity to develop new shows for that network.”