Defying an Industry Trend, Warner Is Easily the Top Producer of TV Shows
By Brooks Barnes, The New York Times
, August 24, 2009
LOS ANGELES — Three years ago, J. J. Abrams
had to decide whether to keep making television shows for the Walt Disney Company
or move to a new home base. A bidding war had broken out for him.
Mr. Abrams, credited with “Alias” and “Lost,” signed a rich television deal with Warner Brothers
: up to $6 million a year in fees and overhead, and a big percentage of revenue from DVD and syndication sales. “It was the overwhelming enthusiasm and sense of support that intoxicated me,” Mr. Abrams said in an interview.
The wooing of Mr. Abrams epitomizes one reason Warner’s television unit is heading into the fall season with an astonishing 45 shows in production, easily making the company the No. 1 television supplier. As networks more blatantly favor internal suppliers, Warner, which is not aligned with a major network, has kept its batting average high by maintaining a deep bench of all-star producers.
The track record of the television division, officially called the Warner Brothers Television Group, is coming under increased scrutiny as its corporate parent, Time Warner
, retools itself in both form and function. By shedding AOL
and its cable infrastructure businesses, Time Warner is placing added weight on operations that have been relatively invisible, like TV production.
Hollywood’s attention, meanwhile, is starting to focus more intently on who will succeed Barry M. Meyer, who is expected to retire as chairman of the combined movie and television studio in 2011. Although there are several potential candidates, there is a precedent for plucking leaders from the lower-wattage arena of TV production: Mr. Meyer previously ran that side of the studio.
Running it now is Bruce Rosenblum, an ardently affable executive who has worked at the company for more than 20 years. While friends and colleagues say Mr. Rosenblum, 51, has made it clear he wants the top job, he declined to comment. Speaking generally, he said, “The success of the Warner Brothers Television Group isn’t a story about me or any individual on our executive team.”
Other significant players in the succession derby are considered to be Jeff Robinov, president of the Warner Brothers Pictures Group, and Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group. A Time Warner spokesman, Edward I. Adler, said, “Any such speculation about succession at Warner Brothers is premature.”
Few people in Hollywood, much less the average television viewer, realize the scope of Warner’s television studio. It starts with the talent deals.
The division’s prime-time stable includes producers like Jerry Bruckheimer
(“Cold Case”), Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men”), John Wells (“ER”), David E. Kelley
(“Boston Legal”), Max Mutchnick (“Will & Grace”), Mike Fleiss (“The Bachelor”) and Josh Schwartz (“Gossip Girl”
). Mr. Abrams is starting to deliver results with “Fringe,” which will return to Fox for a second season on Sept. 17.
The division also runs Warner Brothers Animation, the home of Looney Tunes, and a daytime unit called Telepictures Productions, which produces “The Ellen DeGeneres
Show,” “The People’s Court” and “Extra,” among others. “Our programming is relatable and upbeat — an antidote to the times,” said Hilary E. McLoughlin, president of Telepictures.
Warner Brothers Television is also home to TMZ.com
, one of the most successful digital ventures in Hollywood, and a spin-off series.
The movie side gets the public spotlight — it is hard to compete for attention with $250 million film releases like “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” — but the television division has delivered 50 percent of Warner’s overall profit for the last five years on about $3.5 billion in revenue. Annual profit at the whole studio is about $10 billion.
The division has its share of problems.
Succession is an issue even in this corner of the Time Warner empire, especially among the ranks of executives who focus directly on creative matters. The studio is a co-owner with CBS
of the tiny CW network, which is still losing money three years after the companies promised investors that it would be profitable. (The recession has not eased that task.)
The Big Four networks, meanwhile, complain that Warner, more than any of the other TV suppliers, overspends on pilots to secure orders and does not come through with the necessary weekly budgets to maintain that initial sizzle. It is one reason cited for the demise of Warner shows like “Pushing Daisies,” which ABC dumped after two seasons.
Studios typically sell shows to networks at a loss; the studio makes money by selling reruns after a lot of episodes are in the can (usually four seasons’ worth). International buyers are crucial.
The television business over all is also going through a brutal retrenchment, and Warner as the largest studio is particularly exposed. Because most TV programs attract smaller live audiences today than in years past, they also sell for smaller syndication fees, putting pressure on Warner’s hugely expensive talent deals. (The company said that Mr. Abrams’s contract is not representative of others.)
Hit situation comedies, for instance, have become more scarce. Warner has done better than most — it has “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” (also from Mr. Lorre) — but more typical for the business now is “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” a critically acclaimed series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus
that has been only a middling ratings performer.
Warner’s “Friends” sold into syndication for more than $4 million an episode in 1998; all told, “Old Christine,” just recently sold into syndication, will fetch a little over $1 million an episode.
“There’s an increased awareness that we have to be more proactive in managing costs,” Mr. Rosenblum said.
Still, analysts say the division’s success is stunning, particularly against the backdrop of the industry as a whole and the closer alignment of networks with internal studios.
Despite a desire at Disney for ABC to buy the bulk of its shows from the ABC Television Studio, for instance, Warner managed to sell six new programs to the network for the coming season, including a remake of the cult hit “V” from the 1980s. Mr. Rosenblum credited Warner’s independent status — creative giants like Mr. Abrams do not like being confined to one network buyer — as the primary reason.
“We’ve turned that disadvantage into an advantage,” he said.
Network buyers describe Warner’s selling style as brutal but open-minded. “They’ve been receptive to making certain accommodations, but historically have been tougher than everybody else,” said Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Television Network Entertainment Group.
Mr. Rosenblum said, “We try not to kill people. It’s a small town, and we’re going to be negotiating with these executives and agents again and again.”
Warner has also expanded heavily into cheaper production for cable — the studio produces “The Closer” for TNT and “High School Reunion” for TV Land — and Mr. Rosenblum has been more aggressive than some rivals at embracing the digital arena.
Not all digital efforts have been slam dunks. TheWB.com
, home to Web originals and reruns of older teenage-focused shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” is an undercapitalized misstep to some industry watchers. Others see it as a cheap way to keep that brand alive. The division’s MomLogic.com
is struggling to catch up.
But TMZ.com is a hit. Harvey Levin, the founder of the celebrity news site, credits Mr. Rosenblum as part of the reason — because he left Mr. Levin alone.
“I don’t think TMZ would necessarily have happened in another part of the company,” Mr. Levin said. “We’ve been allowed to experiment and make mistakes, which is rare. Taking that leap of faith is incredibly hard for a lot of corporate managers.”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/bu...ref=television