ABC Studios’ profile within the Disney-ABC Television Group has been rising over the past eight months. In February, following the exit of ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, the reporting structure was changed, with ABC Studios head Patrick Moran, previously reporting to Lee, now reporting directly to Disney Media Networks co-chairman Ben Sherwood, a move giving the studio more autonomy and a seat at the table. And last month, when Moran re-upped his contract, he was promoted from EVP to president.
During his time so far, Moran has led the building up of the studio from a production arm of ABC into a supplier for broadcast, cable and streaming networks with such series as the two Criminal Minds shows and Code Black on CBS; Marvel series on Netflix, Hulu and Freeform; and comedy pilot SMILF on Showtime. Through the ABC Signature division launched by Moran, the studio has projects in the works at virtually every cable and streaming network.
ABC Studios, home of producers Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris and John Ridley, currently supplies the vast majority of ABC’s drama lineup and has launched its first syndicatable comedy series in a decade with Barris’ Black-ish. As the studio’s latest comedy series, American Housewife, premieres on ABC tonight, Moran sat down with Deadline to discuss the studio’s new position, the challenges to attract and keep top talent in the era of Peak TV, program ownership, international and digital strategy, and the current development season, which Moran believes will produce lighter dramas than the last few years.
DEADLINE: How have things changed in the way the studio is run and the way you do business with ABC and outside networks under the new structure?
MORAN: I think it’s changed for the better. I think that there’s an expectation now that we will always keep ABC as our primary customer, but there should be enough flexibility to go outside when it makes sense, so I think the balance of that has been a little bit easier in this new structure.
DEADLINE: You just renewed your contract. Looking back at your time at ABC Studios, what are your biggest accomplishments so far and what are things that you would’ve done differently? Anything you would like to change in your second term?
MORAN: When I got to ABC Studios I came in as the head of drama. The first year, I felt like there was a number of things that we wanted to do. I think first and foremost I think we wanted to revitalize the roster of talent. We got Once Upon A Time, Scandal and Revenge picked up that first year so it was a good start, and I think it was also the right way to realign ourselves with the network. I think we’ve done a really good job of repopulating the drama series on ABC Thursday night. Grey’s Anatomy was on when I got there, but we’ve done Scandal and Murder together, Once Upon A Time, Quantico, Secrets & Lies on Sunday night, and we reached out to other broadcast networks with Code Black and the Criminal Minds spinoff, so I think we’ve done what we wanted to do, which was get as much programming on ABC as we could but find the right opportunities outside. So I think in that respect we’re moving in the right direction.
DEADLINE: You mentioned several dramas. What about comedies?
MORAN: Comedy was a lot harder than drama. There were fewer resources at the studio when I got there. Amy Hartwick came over to work with me in comedy and to her credit together we’ve really bolstered up that comedy roster. I feel like we now have planted a flag on Wednesday night with Black-ish, which was important to us. I think it’s also been good because I think it becomes a beacon for more talent. They’re looking at us and they can see that we’re legitimately in the comedy business. We have The Real O’Neals and now American Housewife. I’m very happy that now Black-ish speaks to the kinds of things that we like which is a very specific point of view. Obviously it’s a show that is known for being very inclusive in terms of diversity, so I think it’s a good prototype of what we’d like to do more of.
DEADLINE: Going forward, where do you want to take ABC Studios?
MORAN: I think from here we want to make sure that we continue to hold onto as much as possible of the real estate at ABC. I think we want to continue to build out of the other broadcast networks. We’ve been just now starting to expand into cable. That’s the next push for us, whether it’s basic or premium cable. It’s something that we’ve dipped our toe in previously but that’s a huge priority for us, and then beyond that international is the next pillar of our business that I think that we want to really focus on.
DEADLINE: What is your international strategy? Co-productions, local productions?
MORAN: I think it could be any number of things. I think it could be a local production, and we have some ideas about local productions that we’re working on right now. It could be a co-production. We have development set up at some of the other broadcasters out of the UK. We could be producing a show out of Europe and then selling it back to the U.S. I think it’s going to be a portfolio of the types of shows we’re pursuing and we’re just now getting started. (UK-based ABC development executive) Keli Lee’s there not even six months but together we’re really trying to build that out to make that the next part of our focus in terms of growing our business.
DEADLINE: International is more and more important for drama series as the off-network market is drying up, so it’s streaming/international sales that bring in revenue. When you develop dramas, what business factors do you take into account? Is the global appeal of a show important?
MORAN: It’s a really tricky balance because we’re really trying to serve the broadcast network first because that’s the one that you have to satisfy. We have been including our international partners on the sales team in a conversation much earlier so that they know what we’re pursuing and that they can at least be mindful of the types of material we’re looking to develop, so we check in with them periodically over the year. You’re right in that the international revenue becomes a bigger and bigger piece of that pie every year so you have to be mindful that whatever you’re doing may then travel, but it’s a tricky balance because it has to live and survive on the broadcast network first.
DEADLINE: What about program ownership? There has been a big push for that by the networks. You’re affiliated with a network, so on one hand it works in your favor with ABC, but you face the problem when trying to sell to other networks.
MORAN: I think five years ago a lot of people would have said no to co-productions at all. I think we know which studios were completely closed to that. As we’re doing more business with the other broadcasting networks we’re finding that it’s sort of easy to be reciprocal. We’re doing something at Fox and 20th wants to participate. The next time 20th is at ABC and we want to participate, it makes it easier to cross back and forth. We tend to operate: How would we feel if we were the other studio, what kind of deal would we be comfortable with if we were being either kissed into something or we’re even being asked to bring somebody else in? It’s a much bigger issue for how we structure these deals. We’re in the same boat as Fox and 20th and NBC and Universal and CBS and CBS Studios and we’re working with all of them.
DEADLINE: You and 20th TV introduced that practice of “trading horses”, exchanging co-productions, with Fox’s Grandfathered and ABC’s Runner. Do you think that will continue and expand to other studios?
MORAN: We’re all much more open to it than we were before. I think everybody sort of understands that it’s part of the new normal for us. You do take it on a case by case. Not everything you’re excited to share, but I think everybody also wants some skin in the game when it comes to making those decisions. I think for us there’s probably value in allowing the studio to have some ownership in an effort to keep that show on a schedule at that network, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: What about digital shortform programming? Is that a new priority area for ABC Studios?
MORAN: That’s something else that we’re just now starting to have a conversation about. I think as a studio we want to have a better sense of how the short-form digital space works. I think it’s a good opportunity to incubate talent. The idea that everything should be going into a traditional development and then pilot process, I think we need to be more flexible about, so I think on the comedy side in particular it seems like a good opportunity to either identify talent and incubate something or try something or be more experimental. So yes it’s something that’s another avenue that we’re pursuing this year; we’d like to create a digital department inside the studio.
DEADLINE: Is that content targeted for the ABC app?
MORAN: It could be but not limited to that. We’re meeting with a number of different partners.
DEADLINE: How difficult is it to attract and to keep talent these days at a studio that has been primarily focused on supplying a broadcast network?
MORAN: It’s challenging just because there’s so many places making shows. The talent pool’s not getting exponentially deeper to accommodate the growth in original content. I believe that the studio is as strong as the talent that lives there, so it’s sort of critical to our business.
DEADLINE: But how do you attract new talent and how do you keep the existing ones? You were able to sign John Ridley, though longtime ABC Studios producer Mark Gordon opted to go independent for instance.
MORAN: Well, John Ridley is a perfect example, actually. I think with someone like John, we have the home-court advantage at ABC. I think collectively, between network and studio, we worked really hard to keep American Crime on the schedule. And when John wants to do something else or pursue a cable project, I think we can afford him as many options as any studio can.
DEADLINE: So what would be your pitch to high-level talent? We are flexible and we offer back-end that would never be possible at Netflix?
MORAN: It’s really like we give you the best of both worlds. We’re aligned with the network. We have a great relationship with them but we’re also flexible enough to take the material outside and I think the writers that have deals at the studio are our best ambassadors. I think if you were to talk to John Ridley or talk to Kenya Barris, they feel like they get enormous support from this studio be it creatively or financially or whatever it is. I think that we want them to be our calling card and I think we’ve been really successful in maintaining those partnerships and when asked, I think they only have good things to say about the studio.
DEADLINE: How’s your relationship with Marvel going? Do you have a say or are they running their company pretty autonomously?
MORAN: The Marvel relationship has really evolved. It’s in a good place. On their television side, they too are really ambitious. They have the Netflix shows. They have Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC. They’re talking about other things they could possibly be developing for ABC network. They now have Runaways on Hulu, Cloak And Dagger on Freeform. Together I think we’ve been able to grow their business in streaming, in broadcast and now on cable. They’re very strategic internally about which titles they’ll exploit in television and which ones they’ll pursue for features, so they often tell us these are the ones we have that Marvel collectively decided that we can pursue and then together we talk about, OK, maybe that title goes here or that title goes there. We can also help them identify writers that we’re in deals with us that we put on one of their projects.
DEADLINE: Will there be a new Marvel series for next season on ABC?
MORAN: It’s a little early to tell.
DEADLINE: Any titles that you could mention as being explored?
DEADLINE: What about a Star Wars series. Is it moving closer to reality?
MORAN: Not yet. Not yet.
DEADLINE: Or anything else with Lucasfilm?
MORAN: There’s one thing that’s been mentioned to me as something to pursue in the future.
DEADLINE: What is your take on the current selling season? Word is that the networks are buying less because there are fewer pitches.
MORAN: It’s been a really slow season. I think with so much activity in the scripted space there were a lot of writers that were busy, first of all, so it took us a longer time to identify people that had a window to write. I think it’s also challenging with 400-plus shows already in production to identify an idea that’s not being pursued in another show, so I think it’s harder for writers to figure out what’s not being done elsewhere. And I think that the networks have been really selective in a good way. They’re just not sort of buying for the sake of buying. But the slow start also gives me anxiety because I feel like if it leads too deep into October it gives the writers less time to write their scripts because they’ll still need the material in January for going to pilot production. So, yes, sluggish. I think at the end of the day I feel confident we’re going to have really good choices and the right number of choices, and I do think we’ll have the right portfolio of material at all of the broadcast networks, so I’m feeling encouraged this minute.
DEADLINE: What are some trends you have noticed? What genres seems to be in demand?
MORAN: IP is strong again. I think the broadcast networks have embraced what they do really well. It could be a great character-driven procedural that probably doesn’t really live in the streaming space or the cable space as comfortably as it does in the broadcast space, and I think we’ve come around that that’s maybe not a bad thing. We have a number of those that are just great character-driven franchised shows which are priority for us both at ABC and outside, and I think there are a number of those that are good contenders. I also think that this year what we’ve discovered is that tone is really important and not every show that feels as dark or as — and this is the kind of an overused word — edgy, but the tone that might live very comfortably on a HBO or Netflix might not work as well in broadcast. And it’s OK, I think, to be a little brighter, a little more escapist, a little more hopeful. I think we’ll likely see a collection of lighter, brighter, pilots come January that’s been a shift from years past.