When I was going through some extremely troubled times in the wake of my simulatenous separations from Sony, my spouse and society, on the heels of a near-death experience, someone I grew quite fond of extended me an olive branch by introducing me to believers who had played an important role in their recovery from their own brush with death. Since no synogauges were open or physically available at the time, they arranged what a Zoom call for me where people as seemingly earnest and caring as I thought this person was prayed for me, encouraging me to embrace the love of Jesus. When I saw the look on this person’s face as she watched me open up to the healing prayers I received, it was by far the most intimate moment I ever had with that person, or, for that matter, almost anyone else who had been in my life previously. But as someone born Jewish, it’s been difficult for me to fully embrace the concept of being born again, let alone the structural trappings of the Catholic Church. I’ve ultimately chosen to incorporate these beliefs into my own concept of a more permissive and embracing relationship with G-d, and I dare say it has helped to sustain me, if only a bit, through some exceptionally troubled times that only seem to escalate as the days pass.
I take no solace in the fact that the majority of the people I cherished at Sony have now themselves moved on, most recently in a purge signed off on by Katherine Pope, who is completing her first year at the helm of SPTS. As most newly installed executives tend to do, Pope has spent a good deal of time cleaing out what she saw as champions of a regime which her superiors clearly saw as ineffective. I crossed paths with Pope as she was partnering on two projects which her Spectrum Originals team championed, the reboot of MAD ABOUT YOU that revisited the world of Paul, Jamie and, now, Mabel Buchman after a two-decade hiatus, and the female-centric spinoff from the BAD BOYS-verse L.A.s FINEST, which partnered the highly visible but extraordinarily diva-like Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba as detectives that the ever-scrappy Sony team saved after NBC chose not to buy the very expensive pilot. While Pope seemed energetic and approachable, she was loath to embrace meaningful data that conflicted with her vision, and she surrounded herself with a team of syncophants that continued to push for a narrative that was rarely backed up by any concrete evidence. Indeed, the Stamford-based team that she reported into was often dismissive of her efforts, which ultimately had been designed by that braintrust as a way for Spectrum to attempt to counter the erosion of cable subscribers to streaming services. It was a playbook which DIRECTV had unsuccessfully attempted nearly a decade earlier with a dedicated slate of scripted originals including a reboot of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and several other ambitious series.
Here’s how DEADLINE’s Nellie Andreeva dispassionately listed Pope’s accomplishments at Spectrum when her appointment became official last spring:
In addition to L.A.’s Finest, which ran for two seasons, Sony TV also produced the Mad About You revival for the channel and is behind the high-profile upcoming Spectrum Originals limited series A Spy Among Friends, starring Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce and Panhandle, starring Luke Kirby. Other original series Pope has commissioned at Spectrum include Joe Pickett, which became Spectrum Originals’ most-watched show ever, Angela Black as well as the upcoming Beacon 23, starring Lena Headey and Stephan James, and George & Tammy, starring Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon.
No, I didn’t watch most of those shows, either, and I didn’t become a cable subscriber because of any of them. But Sony did fill a void for FOX with L.A.’s FINEST during the pandemic, opening a door that had previously been shut for years, that has ultimately given Pope a relationship that has resulted in what was FOX’s most successful new series of the just-completed season, ACCUSED, and the sale of a new broadcast series, DOC, that will (one hopes) eventually be produced. So Pope’s track record so far is not without some success.
But when news of how the negotiations for its most enduring broadcast hit, S..W.A.T., really went down ,as reported by the indefatiguable Lesley Goldberg at THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, this weekend, a good deal of Pope’s goodwill was, in my book, undone:
(S)ources say the renewal discussions began a few months ago when Sony TV chief Katherine Pope — who took over the studio last summer after departing Charter Communications — called CBS and co-producers at CBS Studios to inform them that Sony could not reduce its licensing fee below its current level for season six. Sources say Sony’s Pope wanted to stop Sony from bleeding money on SWAT after CBS had successfully negotiated for a reduced licensing fee for the past few seasons. After a few weeks went by, CBS execs reached out to Sony with an offer to increase the show’s licensing fee for the first time in years, but only for an abbreviated 13-episode season, and Sony execs ultimately decided that the network’s offer wasn’t good enough, sources say. CBS ultimately then told Sony it was going to announce that SWAT had been canceled after six seasons, making sure the studio had ample time to inform cast and creatives. After the May 5 cancellation news broke, Moore blasted the decision on social media and sources say Ryan, who learned of the cancellation from the press, also hit the roof.
“Shawn didn’t know that there was an offer [from CBS] and nobody on the Sony side went to the producers to ask if they could do 13 episodes for the number CBS was proposing,” the source says.”.
An angry Ryan then went directly to CBS executives, at which point he learned that Sony rejected CBS’ offer for an abbreviated season without so much as a call to discuss it with him.
“Shawn Ryan is one of the best showrunners on the planet and he knows how to squeeze a budget better than anybody,” another source says. The presumption was that Sony declined CBS’ offer after consulting with Ryan, who also delivered Netflix’s The Night Agent via his Sony deal. That didn’t happen, sources say. Ryan ultimately informed CBS that he, in fact, could deliver a 13-episode season of SWAT for the number CBS proposed and a deal was made to renew it for an abbreviated seventh and final season.
And as it turned out, plans were already in the works for those episodes to be profitable, with an all-too-willing buyer quite happy with Ryan’s latest hit–by far the most impactful one introduced on Pope’s watch to date, as Andreeva reported yesterday:
More good news for S.W.A.T. The series, which just got a renewal for a seventh and final season by CBS, also has a new streaming home. Netflix has made a substantial deal with lead studio Sony Pictures TV for the first five seasons of the action drama starring Shemar Moore, which will begin streaming in the U.S. on May 17. The current sixth season of the series is expected to join them on the platform in the fall. Netflix was finalizing the S.W.A.T. deal just as Ryan’s newest series, The Night Agent, also from Sony TV where he is based, was exploding on the streamer, becoming one of Netflix’s all-time most popular series.
It’s one thing to throw executives you have little history with under the bus as you try and build a team. And indeed Sony management has made it clear they see their future in streaming, where front-loaded license fees, particularly in the U.S., have more favorable short-term benefits to the bottom line. But to alienate one of its most successful and savvy showrunners in the manner this played out–where the normally soft-spoken Ryan needed to be the arbiter of reason? Well, that’s a belief system I find as diffcult to embrace as the one I was offered in my time of need.
Indeed, Ryan has already gone on record to Goldberg as lamenting the evolution of the Sony that he joined 12 years ago into what it has become:
“I’ve seen a big change in my time at Sony from when Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht wooed me over to Sony. They said, ‘We want you to do anything you want to do; we would love to get one broadcast hit out of you,’” Ryan shared on TV’s Top 5. “They targeted CBS because in 2011, if you had a CSI, NCIS or Criminal Minds, it was a gold mine. We tried with Last Resort, Beverly Hills Cop and then gave them their hit with SWAT, which now is not the gold mine that it would have been 15 years earlier for a show that ran 120 episodes on CBS. Now [Sony] really wants to be in the streaming space. The incentives in my contract are much more to sell to the streamers than to broadcast. So, it’s always been a challenge to be at an independent studio, but it’s been a challenge that I’ve relished. It is harder to sell to these places from an outside studio; it’s harder to get there and become the show that they want to get behind. Having said that, you’ve got to be better than what they could make in-house.”
In fairness, it should be noted that despite her title Pope’s superiors are as much to blame; indeed, Pope’s background as a creative executive as a partner of Liz Meriwhether’s, most notably on the buzzy FOX comedy NEW GIRL, is reciprocal to the business affairs background of her predescessor, Jeff Frost. Pope answers into Ravi Ahuja, Tony Vinciquerrra’s longtime lieutenant at both FOX and Sony. Ahuja was also the executive who championed the idea that Mike Richards should do triple duty as executive producer of both JEOPARDY! and WHEEL OF FORTUNE while also hosting JEOPARDY!. Ahuja claims to have been blindsided by the nearly forgotten frat-boy podcasts which ultimately brought Richards’ reign as host and executive down and nearly mortally wounded a 60-year-old franchise that delivers tens of millions of dollars to the bottom line he is charged with optimizing. My sources, which are at least as good as Goldberg’s, claim otherwise. So one can potentially lay some of the fault for the botched S.W.A.T. negotiations at his feet as well as those of Pope and the team she is still in the midst of building out.
Yet it is Pope who must now build relationships with talents and executives who know how right Ryan was to react the way he did. The writers’ strike gives her a chance to mull it over. She is also now apparently looking for a new head of the department I worked for, an EVP of TV Studio Strategy and Analysis position that according to the listing will potentially pay more than half a million dollars a year to the lucky person who is chosen for it. And yes, I’ve already applied.
While I can defend ad infinitum my qualifications for consideration, we all know that there’s scant little chance I’d even be interviewed. We know the reasons, even if they can’t be uttered publicly without castigation. And rarely would any company rehire someone they already let go. So much as many who used to be my friends would tear me a new a-hole for writing what I’ve written, I’ll defend with equal vigor that I know my facts are accurate and that perhaps injecting a bit more wisdom into future dealings might just help the likes of Pope and Ahuja to do better. Based on their recent performances, as well as their apparently overwhelming taste for a demographic profile I simply can’t match, my hope for even an interview is faint at best.
But I suppose since even the person who tried to infuse Jesus into my life left me better off than I was when I first met them, despite the immense heartbreak I still feel for not having that person in my life any more, I should at least put out into a pink bubble that if someone would give me a chance, I’d be willing to work my butt off to make this Pope one to truly believe in. And if I can at least get some consideration, I’ll probably be open to giving that other Pope–the pontiff– a chance as well.
Until next time…