Viewpoint: Locks will keep us together

As the cable business changes to meet myriad challenges, gaining “locked for life” status on a series is an increasingly rare achievement for producers in today’s commissioning climate. Here, Painless ...
July 9, 2020

As the cable business changes to meet myriad challenges, gaining “locked for life” status on a series is an increasingly rare achievement for producers in today’s commissioning climate. Here, Painless Productions’ president and executive producer Jim Casey¬†weighs in on why, just as with any piece of property, a lock on a show can help everyone feel a little more secure.

About 20 years ago, the business affairs department for a major network group contacted me and requested a meeting. I assumed I was in trouble, but I showed up anyway. I was ushered to a massive, glass-walled room and seated at a Game of Thrones conference table opposite a quintet of grim suits.

“We have an issue,” began their leader, whom I’ll call DB Cooper. I braced for what would come next, racing through defensive scenarios in my head.

“Why aren’t companies like yours pitching us the shows you’re selling to our competitors?”

DB asked this with such shocking sincerity, he seemed almost hurt. Jilted even. I scanned the room for hidden cameras, certain I was being punk’d, even though Punk’d wouldn’t exist for another three years.

“Really?” I asked. He nodded.

“Your deals are awful,” I said. “Why would I bring you anything but the ideas I can’t sell anywhere else?”

I tend to believe others value brutal honesty as much as I do – I’m often wrong, but not this time. Four attorneys shifted in their seats; not DB. He just grinned and asked how we could change that.

I spent the next 30 minutes explaining how and why both our companies could benefit – his perhaps more than mine. I then bounced out of that meeting with renewed faith and a new friend. I returned to my office and added DB to our company’s holiday gift list.

Two weeks later, he was fired. Simply vanished. No forwarding email, no goodbye. It seems DB, like Jerry McGuire, challenged the so-called conventional wisdom, and paid the price before we ever got a chance to prove our point.

For 20 years, I’ve been selective with whom I share my perspective on this subject. But these are desperate television times, and cable needs every possible advantage it can get. So, I’ll repeat here what I told DB then.

Read on, if you dare.

First – because my Mom may read this – a little TV 101: Aside from reasonable timelines and budgets, perhaps the most critical deal point to any content provider is a lock to the concepts we create, develop and bankroll – permanently attaching us to our own intellectual property. Equally important for most of us is reversion language enabling us to sell a killed project elsewhere, even if it means repaying the network’s investment. Reversion often protects us from defensive plays: networks buying our shows for small development dollars, then shelving them to prevent a competing network from acquiring a potential hit.

Producers, especially seasoned ones, consider these locks and reversions reasonable requests to include in our contracts, yet we’re repeatedly met with a firm “no,” with little or no explanation proffered from network execs.

So, since we can’t seem to get a straight answer why they won’t do so, allow me to provide three reasons why they should:

When was the last time you renovated a rented apartment? Or had a rental car detailed? Stupid question, right? Why invest in what may not be yours next week or next year? The same holds true for content providers – why would we put our most valuable resources into a project that can be taken from us?

Lock me to my show, however, and I’ll throw in everything I own to make it work – money, time, relationships, free editing, free gear and even talent or format ideas I’m planning to use for other pitches. I’d be shortsighted not to. I’ve already cleared the highest hurdle in the business – selling a show. The next critical step is to keep it alive, at (almost) all costs and for as long as possible.

We may not be Wharton grads, but creatives grasp that an idea is worth nothing without the capital to bring it to life – we learned that watching Shark Tank. We fully expect and accept that whoever puts up the cash reaps the lion’s share of the spoils. But locking us to our creations brings out the die-hard in all of us. If we know we’re in it for life, we won’t let it die without a fight. Everybody wins.

I’m sure there are many examples of on-air reality talent who are reasonable, collaborative team players. There are also a few who… aren’t. Job security gives us the ability to manage those complicated situations with authority and confidence, usually preventing talent issues from ever reaching the network level. But once word gets out that we can be replaced, the power balance shifts and everything from hotel stars to Doritos flavors becomes an unofficial, heated negotiation between talent and producer. In other words, the asylum is no longer ours to run.

This third reason takes us back to the beginning – networks are simply not getting pitched our best ideas. Streamers’ budgets are typically higher than their cable counterparts, and they tend to go straight to series, making locks and reversion two of the last remaining carrots cable can still dangle.

Look, we get it – commitment can be scary. No network wants to invest in a new series only to watch it become a massive hit and drive its locked-for-life creator to become an irrational, power-hungry, egotistical lunatic. Again, there’s no MBA diploma hanging on my wall, but it seems that unlikely outcome is a much better business risk than never owning a project at all. Besides, can’t that throng of attorneys put their heads together and generate a “no lunatic” clause?

Industry experts say cable is on life support. At the risk of drawing the laughter and ridicule of my peers, I disagree. I believe it’s far from over if we can find a better way to collaborate.

I know I’m not alone when I say this: You were my first, cable, and I’ll always love you. But you’re not the high school football star you once were. You’re older and softer with less hair and high blood pressure. But I’m in this for the long haul. I just need you to stop taking me for granted. I need a little love in return.

And DB, please call if you get this. I still have your Christmas gift.

Founded by Jim Casey, Painless Productions, launched 25 years ago, has produced a long list of genre-busting and award winning series across a wide variety of genres including the long running franchise The Dead Files (Travel), My Crazy Ex (LMN) as well as spinoffs My Crazy Sex (LMN) and My Haunted House (LMN), Hot Properties: San Diego (HGTV), Out There with Jack Randall (NatGeo Wild, Disney+), Reasonable Doubt (ID), Evil Things (TLC) and Cat People (Animal Planet) among dozens more.

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