With streamers making their biggest bets yet on content — and more of them about to include advertising options — variety spoke with Dan Erlij and Allan Haldeman, UTA co-heads of TV literary, about the state of the television industry.
In a rare joint interview, the two covered a wide range of topics, such as Netflix’s and HBO’s domination of the Emmys, and how AVOD streaming could bring “transparency we can find in terms of making deals.” The duo have more than 40 years at the agency between them, as well as a roster of A-list clients that includes “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong, “The Good Fight” duo Robert and Michelle King, and “Atlanta” director and executive producer Hiro Murai.
I want to use the Emmy nominations as a starting point. In particular, the fact that HBO/HBO Max got 140 nominations and Netflix got 105. You’d have to add up the next seven platform totals to equal that 245 number. Is it good or bad to have two major players dominating the awards landscape?
Erlij: I would say I think you have to look at the shows that are being nominated first and foremost. I think there’s some really incredibly cool and wonderful shows that are being recognized. And I think nobody would look at “Succession” even in a later year, or “Hacks,” or “White Lotus,” or “Maid” or any of the shows that were being nominated and say these shows don’t deserve it… But if your question is, would you like to see other places represented? Are there shows that you wish that you’d seen nominated? Of course. I look at something like “Reservation Dogs” at FX, or, quite frankly, “Yellowstone” I think is a show that deserves to be recognized.
Haldeman: I’d say also, other places will look at that day and point to some real successes. Hulu had a number of series and were particularly strong in the limited category, which is a really competitive field and they did incredibly well… Apple had a big splashy drama in “Severance” and obviously “Ted Lasso” was mainstay. You have you know a breakthrough show like “Yellowjackets” for Showtime with it that got into the drama series conversation… So I think if you look at some individuals in the series spaces that got significant nominations, I think that a lot of these different places can really pull at different threads that are cause for celebration and excitement.
Is there a particular streaming service you think is really leading the pack right now, not necessarily in the awards sense but moreso as a place your clients consistently want to take projects?
Haldeman: I think Dan’s going to laugh at this answer. This is a pure Allan answer. I think that, number one, we are rooting for all their of success. To have healthy buyers and different people succeeding in this space is great for all of us…I think that each and every one of these more prominent streaming services going on down to the newer ones like Roku have an agenda or are building something. I think that there’s no one where you go “That’s the place to be.” I think that for us, we’re looking to find the most enthusiastic outlets for the show that we’re out in the market selling that will give it the chance to have the most eyeballs, the most attention, the best Emmy campaign, the right marketing, and for each different show that can be a different for a different place.
Erlij: I think right now the exciting thing is you can look at every single platform and see that they have really compelling programming. I think it’s a really competitive marketplace. And, you know, obviously, the conversation has been around consolidation, and how many platforms can really be supported by consumers and how much will people pay to watch all of these places? We’re excited that there are these many choices.
Haldeman: One of the bright spots of being a seller or a creator in the market right now is that there are so many different places that have different agendas and different metrics for success and different definitions for what it is that they’re looking for with respect to building their subscriber base or targeting a certain customer. And the fact that there is no one place to be but there’s always a very specifically right place to be for the right show means that there is the ability to be curated and selective and thoughtful and, at the right times, aggressive in the marketplace.
The marketplace still seems to be grappling with the effects of COVID, which infamously created a major development logjam and major production shutdowns early on in the pandemic. Are those things still issues and do you think COVID will continue to cause problems for studios and networks?
Haldeman: I find that in terms of the logjam, I think we’re kind of past that moment where there was a glut of development and then a lot of held up production. There are still shutdowns. These things happen on shows. It feels like they are shorter, less dramatic, more monitored, more easily traced with the changing protocols. I think that there’s a growing experience or just a lesser impact, even though it still exists. The thing that I will say seems to still exist, and I think it’s something we’re going to continue to grapple with at least in the short term, is just the cost that it adds to show. It makes shows more expensive to deal with the COVID protocols and potential shutdowns and it creates some scheduling issue and conflicts. If you represent directors or actors and things are really back to back in terms of your dates, and you’ve tightly scheduled them and things go sideways, that’s tough.
Erlij: I honestly think that’s where Hollywood was sort of innovative and at the forefront in terms of production. Obviously, there were missteps and difficulties, but I think production has been one of the true success stories. You look at the way that they kept shows moving and going. The protocols that exist now manage to limit the exposure. And that’s, I guess that’s a pun. That wasn’t intended…But I agree with Alan. The single greatest issue going forward with COVID is still just going to be the cost associated with whatever extended production you have. Whether there’s a shutdown, or not, the protocols make it more expensive and more time consuming.
One thing we’ve noticed is that in the Nielsen streaming ratings, procedurals like “NCIS” or “Criminal Minds” and sitcoms like “Friends” are consistently among the most-watched shows on streaming. Given that, are any streamers telling you they want shows that fit those broadcast formats more closely?
Haldeman: It kind of depends on the place. Certain places are not specifically looking for those things, nor have they ever. They’ve always had a little bit of a different identity. But I would say that increasingly in the streaming marketplace, a bunch of places have expressed versions of, “Hey, these formats are interesting. They are successful. They do draw audiences. They were really well done. Is there a version of that that exists today for us? And are there the right people interested in making that for us?”
Erlij: I was going to say specifically I think Netflix in particular has shown an interest in sort of “a broadcast model,” both on the half hour and hour side. Then you look at some place like Paramount+ doing the “Criminal Minds” reboot. That’s obviously because “Criminal Minds” was widely publicized as having one of the largest audiences in terms of that library of any show around. And I think, obviously, it makes sense for them to seek out that kind of audience. So I do think that’s going to be something that they’re going to look to, that self-enclosed episode that was sort of the broadcast model.
You’re also seeing a lot of bug budget shows coming out soon, namely “House of the Dragon” and “Lord of the Rings.” How likely are we to see big budget bets like that from streamers going forward?
Erlij: With the “Game of Thrones” prequel, that one is because “Game of Thrones” was the biggest show forever, so it seems like the right kind of bet to make. And “Lord of the Rings” is one of the most iconic titles. So what I think you’ll probably see is these tentpoles being based around really recognizable IP, or something that gives them the undeniability that would allow aa platform to make that kind of bet. I think that big budget bets that are based on original ideas or less lesser known IP probably will not be happening so much in the future. I think that there, there will be probably a, a much stricter analysis of what should be a “$200 million show.”
Haldeman: I think there are also other higher budget shows which live in a different genre that have other reasons that make them really good bets. Like I’d say “Terminal List” or “Reacher” or “Jack Ryan,” I think have pretty significant budgets, but have major entities or IP or auspices in the middle of them that reach a pretty broad audience and perform really, really well. And I think when you get that conflation of circumstances, I think we’ll see people continue to make those bets.
Big IP has really driven streaming for the past several years. But it seems, more and more, audiences are asking for more original ideas and less major tentpole fare as a change of pace in viewing. Do you think IP will continue to be as important in the future?
Erlij: I still think that you’re going to see a strong focus on IP. Part of the thing is that you also need things that are self marketing in a crowded landscape, and IP that is recognizable or has aa very passionate or loyal fan base can do that for you. It can be something like a big book title like “Lord of the Rings,” but it can also be a big well legal case like “The Dropout.” “The Dropout” was front page news for forever, and then there was the documentary that was done for HBO that also put it at the forefront. So I think those kinds of things that are already in the public consciousness are going to be important, because, as much as it is just about getting people into the tent, it’s also about marketing a show, and things that are self-marketing are going to be important.
And with AVOD streaming becoming more of the industry standard, with Netflix recently announcing their own ad-supported plan, how do you feel about streamers finally having to publicly report viewing numbers?
Haldeman: I am curious about how it changes the metrics of success and some of the importance of different services or shows. The metric is no longer pure subscribers or a certain type of subscriber, depending on what service you’re at. And if you’re adopting the ad-supported model, because there’s an additional revenue stream of major ad buyers who are going to look for dependable audiences, what that does is it increases the value of a known commodity. Shows will traditionally get more expensive as they mature…And when you’re only looking at subscriber retention or addition, the return that you’re getting on that increasing investment is a different analysis than when a major ad buyer is saying, “I know what audience goes to that show. I want that audience. That’s important to me, I will pay a premium for it.”
Erlij: We certainly look forward to that, obviously, as representatives. We are looking for the most transparency we can find in terms of making deals. We want fairness in the marketplace. And when the marketplace is opaque, it’s harder to be able to tell your clients that the deal that they’re getting makes perfect sense. So to that extent that I agree with you that with an ad supported model, they’re not going to be able to not release information. I think we welcome that.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Variety Magazine.