NBC to Pay for Blocks of Programs

December 3, 2007

 

NBC has made an ambitious deal, apparently the first of its kind, to buy a two-hour — or perhaps even three-hour — block of prime-time programming from outside producers, including Thom Beers, the creator of adventure documentary series like “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.”

Under the plan, NBC has agreed to broadcast at least two new hours produced by Mr. Beers back to back on a single night, with many more hours possible. The terms guarantee Mr. Beers and his partners 30 hours of programs on NBC — three separate 10-episode series.

These 30 hours would come at a fraction of the cost of standard network scripted or reality programming, a factor that made the deal attractive to NBC.

The project is not related to the current strike by Hollywood writers but the background forces are somewhat similar as networks struggle to revise their financial formulas to face a future of diminishing ratings and growing uncertainties about how the Internet will figure in viewers’ choices. The programs, which are all documentary in style, would not have staff writers.

The principals in the arrangement are prominent television names, Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun, both former top network programmers, who created a production company that has what is known as a “first look” deal that gives NBC the first crack at buying their productions. Ms. Berman and Mr. Braun contracted with Mr. Beers to create the shows and then went to NBC to pitch the idea of filling an entire night — or at least two-thirds of it — with real-life action.

The idea for mounting a block of shows that would play together on a night started with conversations Ms. Berman and Mr. Braun had with NBC’s chief executive, Jeff Zucker, this year. The discussions centered on the way the broadcast networks have generally abandoned Saturday night, filling it with repeats because ratings on that night have been too low to sustain the high costs of original programs.

Ms. Berman and Mr. Braun suggested that a new form of lower-cost programming, perhaps as an entire three-hour block of shows. The producers were already fans of Mr. Beers’s shows. “It’s just about all I watch,” said Mr. Braun.

He declined to describe the specifics of the deal. But participants on both sides described its main elements, on condition that they not be identified because they had not been authorized to discuss specific terms. “It certainly has the potential to dramatically change the network economics of a given night,” Mr. Braun said.

In the past, networks have contracted with outside producers to assemble a slate of Saturday morning children’s programming— mostly cartoons— but networks have not commissioned outsiders previously to fill a block of prime-time programming.

The chief economic benefit of programs from Mr. Beers is that they are strikingly cheap to produce by network standards. Shows like “Ice Road Truckers” cost about well under $500,000 an hour, a modest figure next to a typical cost of about $3 million for an hourlong scripted network series. Conventional network reality shows are also much more expensive at $1.5 million to $2 million an hour. The producers will will split ownership with NBC, giving the network control of domestic rights and the producers the international rights.

After contracting with Mr. Beers to produce the shows, Ms. Berman and Mr. Braun met with NBC executives and pitched a roster of 10 potential series. The participants in the deal said that the NBC executives most involved were the two co-chairmen of the network’s entertainment division, Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, both of whom were described as enthusiastic supporters of the idea. Neither would comment on the deal yesterday.

The original plan was to place the shows on Saturday night, the participants said — perhaps under an overall title, like “Saturday Night on the Edge.” But NBC declined to commit to Saturday for the shows, seeking to retain discretion on when to broadcast them. So the program block may be shown on any night — and at the moment Saturday is not the choice, one participant said. The contract commits NBC to run as at least a two-hour block, however.

NBC retained the right to cancel one or more of the linked shows if they perform below a certain ratings threshold; but it may not break up the block for any other reason — if it did, it would open the shows up to moving to another network, the participants said.

“Deadliest Catch,” which is shown on the Discovery Channel, and “Ice Road Truckers,” on the History Channel, have become among the most popular programs on cable television. The finale of “Ice Road Truckers” attracted close to 5 million viewers. Mr. Beers, a former producer at Turner Broadcasting and Paramount’s syndicated division, started his own company, Original Productions, in 1999, with a heavy emphasis on motorcycle shows and documentaries like “Plastic Surgery: Before and After” and “Ballroom Bootcamp.” The company’s signature hit was “Monster Garage,” in which a standard car was “monsterized” into another kind of machine.

The shows Mr. Beers and his partners are planning for NBC would not be ready to serve as fill-ins during the strike because they are unlikely to be seen until the third quarter of 2008. Mr. Beers uses real people in real situations in extreme locations like the Arctic. Shows set there have to be shot in warmer months, for example.

By the time the shows do get on the air, at least three of them will be finished shooting. Two will go on in the initial block with the third ready to replace any that might fall short in ratings, the participants said.

At the same time, NBC agreed to pay for several other ideas pitched by Mr. Beers to be turned into pilots. But these will be unlike any other pilots NBC makes, the participants in the deal said.

Instead of shooting hourlong pilot episodes, NBC plans to have Mr. Beers shoot 5- to 10-minute films on some topic that can then be tried out as reports on the network’s “Today” show or “Dateline” newsmagazine show.

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