As writers and their supporters took to the streets of New York and Los Angeles with some of their better work for a while displayed on picket signs yesterday, almost lost in the news cycle was the news that FOX’s most successful scripted series, 9-1-1. would not be renewed. Instead, its seventh season, one that will see it finally reach the omce-significant 100 episode mark, will air on what is now the sibling network to its producer, 20th Television, ABC. A fascinating followup story by THE WRAP’s Jose Alejandro Bastidas gave those who were shocked by this more than a bit of inside baseball as to what may have driven that decision:
With a stunningly high per-episode cost after six years of $9-$10 million, Fox made the call to cancel a show made by Disney-owned 20th Television — only to see the show scooped up by ABC. That’s likely because the licensing cost had rocketed so high for Fox that the show no longer made sense to keep on the air. The cancellation this week of “9-1-1,” Fox’s highest-rated scripted show, tells you everything you need to know about the broken economics of the broadcast television business: It doesn’t really work.
When the show was initially ordered, it had the luxury of being an in-house order, which FOX executives favored, and for years was often a tiebreaker when networks would need to make a choice about a renewal from a company they had ties to versus an outside supplier. As onetime network and studio head Tom Nunan explained to Bastidas and his readers, the practice allowed for successful shows to eventually register wins for both sides of the equation:
Because Disney Television owns the show, the enormous production cost pencils out for ABC — but only with a very long business horizon.
In the economic model that held sway for 20 years, “the 10-year bell curve of a very successful series shows the network making an absolute fortune for the first five to six years,” explained the network executive. “Then you start to give some of those profits back in the form of much higher payments to the studio and the curve heads downward.
It was a common practice in the 90s when companies used retransmission consent to launch networks that were rounded out by library product. When I was at Turner in the early 90s, Cartoon Network was populated by aging episodes of Hanna-Barbera series such as THE FLINTSTONES and THE JETSONS, which had long since made back their initial investment via years of traditional syndication, that were sold at pennies on the dollar and allowed the network to show a more favorable economic picture that justified the investment in the first-run content that ultimately put them on the map. Later, FX would license several series from then-sister company 20th Television to juice its ratings and viability where the studio side, under pressure from its producers, would wind up credited with higher license fees that put the fledgling FX in a serious early hole. One of them, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ironically became part of a bidding war between Nunan’s UPN and The WB where those eventual syndication dollars and, to an extent, FOX’s takeover of UPN’s largest market stations helped justify the struggling UPN to pivot from its more successful strategy of urban appeal sitcoms and try and take the WB head-on.
We called this “left pocket, right pocket” economics. And at FOX, when on several occasions the ultimate decision maker was often the same person at the studio and the network simutaneously, there were political benefits to being able to be both church and state. Dana Walden was that person then, and now sits atop the decision tree for 20th TV and ABC, let alone 9-1-1’s streaming home, Hulu. And because she also chose to allow Disney’s distribution division to sell a syndication window outside their walled garden earlier this year to Comcast’s USA Network (FX’s lack of success with off-network hours had long ago shifted its acquisition strategy strictly to movies), and often such deals include options for still-to-be-produced seasons that will eventually also go onto the plus side of her ledger, there’s incentive to keep it going.
But 9-1-1 is an increasingly rare phenomenon of relative success, self-contained procedural storytelling and scale, not to mention motivated management, that set the conditions for this to even happen at all today. Conversely, FOX is now run by its former head of unscripted television, Rob Wade, who favors not only his type of TV but also shows that cost less and scripted options that can offer FOX the kind of left pocket-right pocket flexibility it once had. 9-1-1’s void will be replaced in part with a show that sounds like a cross between BAYWATCH: HAWAII and 9-1-1 itself, RESCUE: Hi-SURF, produced by onetime ER honcho John Wells. Warner Brothers, which is under edict to find homes outside their ecosystem for shows, will partner with 20th replacement entity FOX Entertainment, and both are reportedly seeking to turn this into a franchise. The 9-1-1- spin-off LONE STAR, heading into its fifth and final season under its initial licensing term, will likely leave FOX and perhaps head to ABC as well, which will which would open the door for another iteration (Hi-SURF: SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, anybody?)/
And the confluence of a motivated seller, a buyer reared in unscripted television, and a company determined to cut costs also led to yesterday’s other under-the-table announcement of a successful series switching homes, as THE WRAP’s Lawrence Yee reported:
“FBOY Island” has a new life and a new home.
The reality TV dating series, hosted by Nikki Glaser, has been picked up for a third season by The CW after being canceled on HBO Max. The third installment of the series is set to air on The CW this fall.
In addition to the season order, the network also has plans for a spin-off titled “FGIRL Island” where the gender roles are reversed. Glaser is slated to host the spin-off series that will begin back-to-back production this summer as “FGIRL Island” eyes a midseason debut.
While the CW is an afterthought as a broadcast network, it still provides as robust a template for success as any streamer, and its de facto head of programming is now also a reality show veteran, former USA and Peacock unscripted head Heather Oleander. Suffice to say, both she and Wade aren’t quite as worried about any writer’s strike as some of their counterparts might be, and a lot less than most writers would hope.
I’m not necessarily trying to make network executives sources of sympathy for protesting writers. No question people like Wade and Oleander, let alone Walden, are in better economic standing than many who are passionately telling their stories and shouting their demands (at least until Thursday, when rain is expected in LA; let’s see what happens then). But as I wrote previously, taking a breath and acknowledging that even the best of results for everyone simply isn’t enough to be the kind of lock for guaranteed success it was back in 2008 or 1993 or 1988 or even 2018 might, just might, open enough of a window of understanding that could perhaps give a reality check, so to speak, to what is desired and what is possible.
By the way, have any writers recently checked in with the kinds of conditions and uncertainty that those who produce unscripted television are dealing with?
So while the vitriol and rhetoric escalate and the news cycle continues to be dominated with dour news of aborted talk shows, shortened seasons and tales of overworked creatives crying out for the world that once was, try not to lose sight of what else may be going on. You’re not alone, but you’re also not necessarily the be-all and end-all.
But do keep up those creative signs. Maybe there’s a series idea in it.
Until next time…