Hollywood’s New Obsession Is Old Stand-Up Comedy and Foreign Reruns

Over the past decade, producer Brian Volk-Weiss has filmed comedy specials from Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong and Kevin Hart, building a library he licenses to streaming services and TV networks alike. Now, with new productions halted by the coronavirus, that archive has become one of Hollywood’s most-valuable commodities.

Volk-Weiss is reveling in the greatest selling spree of his career. His company,Nacelle Co., just sold seven specials to the CW, including shows by Jim Gaffigan and Marina Franklin, his first-ever deal with a broadcast network. He’s currently negotiating transactions for more than 60 titles — potentially exceeding his past five years combined.

“This is probably the greatest time in the history of the world to have catalog,” Volk-Weiss said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Unable to produce new sitcoms, scripted dramas or even some reality programs, TV networks are racing to find programming that can fill hours of air time. A mix of desperation and uncertainty has led them to places they might not have at looked before, including South African sitcoms and 25-year-old stand-up comedy specials.

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The CW, owned by ViacomCBS Inc. and AT&T Inc., bought specials from Volk-Weiss for a new Tuesday night “Happy Hour,” including a six-year-old project from comedian Tom Papa that’s already available for free online. It also picked up the rights to programs that have previously appeared on DC Comics’ streaming service and on British TV. The Fox network grabbed “L.A.’s Finest,” a drama made for customers of Charter Communications Inc.

Because of production constraints caused by the coronavirus, the CW and Fox have said they won’t be airing most of their new scripted programs until 2021, months later than normal. Instead, they’re betting that little-seen stand-up shows or programs from other countries will seem like a breath of fresh air.

“It was critical for Fox to quickly pivot and figure out how to offer all original programming this fall on the nights where we regularly program entertainment,” said Dan Harrison, executive vice president of program planning and content strategy. Harrison had already been looking at “L.A.’s Finest” because of the risk of a writers’ strike, and talks accelerated when the pandemic hit. The rest of Fox’s lineup looks stable, but Harrison has made a list of potential acquisitions from overseas should the production delay extend beyond September.

TV networks have always relied on reruns. Well before the cable network AMC became the home of “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead,” it was called American Movie Classics — a place to watch old movies.

 HBO changed all that. The premium channel’s successful shift to original shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” from inspired advertiser-supported networks such as FX and AMC to produce “The Shield” and “Breaking Bad.” Movie stars and top screenwriters stopped viewing TV as a lesser medium, leading to a new Golden Age for TV. The number of original series in the U.S. skyrocketed from 182 in 2002 to 266 by 2011, according to FX.

Netflix Inc. hastened the shift, taking HBO’s model to the internet. After initially licensing  libraries from studios like Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, the online service began funding original programming on a scale no one had seen before. Last year, the number of original, scripted series ran north of 500.

Now, declining ad sales and cord cutting are pinching budgets, promptingstaff reductions at Comedy Central andprogramming cutbacks at many basic cable networks. The coronavirus and its economic fallout may accelerate those changes, forcing more networks  to downsize their programming ambitions for good.

While filming has picked up in Iceland, South Korea and Germany, U.S. production centers like Los Angeles and New York will need to wait another month or two. State governments, studios, insurance companies and unions are all still ironing out safety protocols.

“I’m not going back to work until I feel that I’ll be safe,” actor Jeffrey Wright, a star on the HBO show “Westworld,” said on a Bloomberg panel.

Unlike on-demand services, broadcast and cable channels have to fill 24 hours of  programming every day. And while they’ve already geared their news and talk shows for remote production, they can’t do the same with sitcoms and dramas.

While TV networks typically air less original programming from May to August, they must begin production soon to have new shows ready for the fall season in September. CBS, which has beenairing movies on Sunday nights, is more optimistic than most. The most-watched network in the U.S. expects to have many new and returning shows ready this fall, though that may mean October or November instead of September.

Streaming services also appear in better shape. Netflix has said it has sufficient new programming for the next few months, at a minimum. Other media giants like Walt Disney Co. and AT&T, the parent of HBO and Warner Bros., are holding on to their most valuable archive shows for their online businesses.

That means other networks will have to shop among the anime studios, foreign suppliers and comedy specialists to fill their schedules. Volk-Weiss was negotiating the sale of a couple of stand-up specials to an unnamed cable network in April when he asked if they’d want to buy more. Two weeks later, the deal had expanded to around 60 specials, potentially netting him millions of dollars. 

“They’ve gotta find stuff that has been made but not exposed,” Volk-Weiss said. “If new productions are not starting to be made by the end of summer, there will be some drastic digging around.”

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