A TV network with the media world's squarest parent would never go for a show like this. Or would it? When executives at General Electric's (GE) NBC caught wind of a hot script lambasting a wobbly network just coincidentally called NBS, they mounted a fierce battle to win the show, set to premiere in September. Now the buzz around Hollywood is that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a slick hour-long drama from superstar writer Aaron Sorkin, may be just what NBC desperately needs to lift itself out of a four-year ratings funk.
A sharp-tongued drama, Studio 60 tells the story of a comedy program much like NBC's , gleefully skewering egoistic creative types, backstabbing executives, and government-fearing corporate lawyers along the way. They may have smarted over the material, but NBC executives clearly saw the fast-paced script as a chance at deliverance. The creator of NBC's long-running hit The West Wing, Sorkin has invented two complicated lead characters, complete with histories of substance abuse, who return to NBS to help bail out a show in crisis. The irony wasn't lost on the NBC suits: Sorkin parted ways with the Peacock Network three years ago over a blowup that followed his own well-publicized drug problems.
Taking a second chance with the 45-year-old Sorkin was an admission that NBC needed that one monster hit to help resuscitate its prime-time reputation, just as Desperate Housewives changed the game for floundering ABC two years ago. "We're coming off a couple of tough years, and we saw this is as the kind of entertainment that would bring folks back," says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, whose future at the network may well be riding on Studio 60 and the whole fall lineup. Consider that NBC's ratings have declined 25% since 2002, and that the once-invincible network finished fourth last season to Fox, ABC, and CBS among 18- to 34-year-olds. With a string of flops in recent years, NBC will launch six new shows, about a third of its 17-show schedule. Improbably, one of them is yet another -like parody called 30 Rock. The half-hour comedy, created by and starring SNL headliner Tina Fey and featuring Alec Baldwin, was already in development when the Sorkin talks began.
From the outset, NBC counted heavily on Studio 60, giving it the high-profile Thursday night 9 p.m. slot once occupied by Seinfeld and Cheers. But even before its first airing, the plan was short-circuited: ABC outmaneuvered its rival and moved its own powerhouse, Grey's Anatomy, to the same time, forcing NBC to shift the show to Monday at 10. It's a spot that can be nurtured, says Sorkin, because Fox affiliates shift from entertainment to news programming at that hour. "Of course, now we expect ABC to shift the Super Bowl, Academy Awards, and a Presidential debate to Monday nights," Sorkin quips.
The story began six months earlier when Reilly, who returned to NBC for a second stint in 2003, heard that Sorkin wanted to come back to TV with a script loosely based on his last turbulent years at The West Wing. Reilly says he immediately peppered the writer with phone calls and e-mails. Sorkin began working in earnest on the script last summer in a hotel room in London while overseeing a revival of his play A Few Good Men. If anyone was concerned that NBC could get burned trying to renew its ties with Sorkin, no one said so. "I wanted to be in business with Aaron Sorkin, who has the kind of sensibilities that appeal to an NBC audience," says Reilly, who learned a thing or two about taking chances on edgier fare as a top programmer at FX Networks, where he greenlit the hit cop show The Shield.
Although Reilly and Sorkin knew each other from earlier days, old ties don't always count for much in Hollywood. Business was business. So, backed by Warner Bros. Television Group (TWX), Sorkin and his partner, Thomas Schlamme, along with their agent, Ari Emanuel, decided to stage a pressure-packed bidding process. They gave the networks a weekend to read the script and commit to the show. The response was high-voltage. CBS bid higher than it originally wanted to, say those with knowledge of the bids. And both dispatched their heavyweights: CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves and NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeffrey A. Zucker each blitzed Sorkin and Schlamme with calls to their homes in Santa Monica. "It got so bad that we had Ari field the calls so we could get some work done," says Schlamme.
NBC was under enormous pressure to win. At the time of the bidding, the network was sinking fast in the ratings, and NBC execs, from Zucker to Reilly, were in the hot seat after ad sales had dropped for the first time in years. GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt began to spend more time on NBC's woes. So Reilly moved quickly. He got the script on a Friday night and overnighted a copy to Zucker in New York. "By Saturday night we were into the numbers," says Reilly. NBC won the bidding with a $2 million an episode licensing fee (the average for a first-time show is about $1.4 million, say sources).
Emanuel insisted on other benefits, too: a 13-episode commitment (half a season) with a massive financial penalty for early cancellation. The producers were assured of a decent night and time slot, and Sorkin won artistic control. In a break from current network practice, the show was granted a large marketing budget -- $10 million, according to knowledgeable sources -- that included photo shoots and online clips produced by high-end photographers used by movie studios. NBC declined to comment on the marketing budget. The campaign also includes extensive promotions on video site YouTube and a Hollywood-style premiere five days before the show's Sept. 18 debut.
Deal in hand, the Studio 60 duo went to work signing a star-packed cast that now includes Amanda Peet and Steven Weber along with West Wingalums Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield. One key challenge was wooing Friends star Matthew Perry, who could help the show take off, Reilly says. But Perry was being pitched by several producers and was mulling other NBC projects. "There were all [these] silly money projects coming his way from every agent in town," says Reilly. Once Perry read the script, however, he agreed to play the part of disillusioned writer Matt Albie, recalls Sorkin.
The pilot, which cost a hefty $6 million to make (the Desperate Housewives pilot cost $5 million), has won high praise from critics and, better yet, major Internet buzz. Consultant Brandimensions Inc. says Studio 60 was talked about in 22% of online chat discussions from mid-May to mid-June, more than any of the other new shows. That compares with 9.3% for NBC's Heroes and 5.5% for CBS' nuclear disaster drama Jericho. NBC has helped by offering clips of Studio 60 to Internet sites and will soon send free promo DVDs to Netflix (NFLX) customers. Although some advertisers worry that Studio 60 will be too inside-Hollywood for a broader audience, Andy Donchin, whose ad agency Carat North America has bought time on the show for clients Black & Decker, RE/MAX, and others, says the show will play to NBC's traditionally higher-income urban viewers.
That puts a heavy burden on Sorkin to dazzle with the scripts that once made The West Wing a watercooler favorite. Sorkin, who is in recovery, says he is reenergized. He has already penned six scripts, quite a feat for a writer with a reputation for being painfully slow. And he's not pulling any punches. In the pilot, guest star Judd Hirsch lambastes the loss of TV standards and rails against shows on which "contestants eat worms for money" -- an obvious swipe at NBC's lowbrow show Fear Factor. Sorkin says NBC's Zucker laughed at the barbs and told him to keep them coming. Maybe, just maybe, Studio 60's self-referential humor will help spark a turnaround. "If he's going to [lampoon NBC]," says Reilly, "it's better he does it on our air than on someone else's."
By Ronald Grover