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Sony Hits Funny Bone

Sony Pictures Television is developing eight comedy pilots for cable, the most the studio has ever taken on. And while Sony has long done business with cable, the abundance of comedies in development represents a departure for the last major independent studio.

The decision to go funny came last year, as Sony sought out a niche amidst the drama-heavy television landscape. To improve its chances of landing a breakout comedy hit, Sony pushed forward with cable, knowing that networks like Comedy Central and TBS would provide greater freedom to take risks with content.

“[The shows] need to have a strong point of view and feel fresh and different and irreverent,” says Sony Pictures TV Co-President, Programming and Production, Zack Van Amburg. “All the wonderful development cliché words people apply to television shows. We really mean it when we say it, and we don't settle.”

With four comedy pilots apiece for TBS and Comedy Central, Sony's programs range from Public Nuisance, which will see Morgan Spurlock examine various social issues; to Gay Robot, a live- action scripted adaptation of a character from an Adam Sandler comedy album (both for Comedy); to Todd's Coma, starring comedian Todd Glass as a man in a coma who has flashbacks induced by visitors (for TBS). The last two are from Sandler's production shingle Happy Madison. (Sony has produced many of Sandler's feature films.)

Lacking a broadcast-network partner in the parent company, Sony has for several years positioned itself as a friend to the cable networks. It has produced originals like The Shield and Strong Medicine that convey the networks' personalities, which are so important in establishing their brands.

All the while, Van Amburg has emerged as an astute pitchman, his associates say. “Zack's not a guy who's out there throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall to see what sticks,” says Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming for TNT and TBS. “He pitches you stuff in which he really believes. When you get into crunch time, that enthusiasm for the material often helps get these shows across the finish line.”

Last year, TBS branded itself the “very funny” network. As it launches full-force into producing original comedies, it has more deals with Sony than with any other studio. Wright characterizes the relationship as a “mutual-aid society.”

Sony's cable dramas—which include Lifetime's Strong Medicine, ABC Family's Beautiful People and Showtime's Huff—have earned strong ratings and critical acclaim.

Still, producing first-run shows for cable is far less lucrative than producing them for broadcast. Broadcast reruns can command $2.5 million-plus per episode, while an episode of basic cable's The Shield fetches the mid six figures.

Sony also proved it can capitalize on the backend beyond international and DVD; this summer, it sold reruns of FX's The Shield to Spike, as well as to all 26 Tribune Broadcasting-owned stations.

“It reaffirmed everything we believe in and gave us all the confidence to say the strategy's been right,” says Van Amburg, who was recently named co-programming chief.

In addition to its eight cable dramas and eight comedy pilots, Sony is also developing two comedy scripts apiece for FX and Showtime. The studio plans to self-finance select projects and is looking to capitalize on ancillary distribution platforms in the future.

“Cable's an important landscape, and we're going to continue to be aggressive,” says Van Amburg. “As an independent, we're always trying a little harder and working a little faster.”