Sony Pictures TV Studios President Katherine Pope On Steering Indie Through Industry Slimdown, Expanding Universes & Potentially More ‘Cobra Kai’
Katherine Pope was named President of Sony Pictures Television Studios last summer, 15 years after she previously ran a TV studio, NBC Universal TV Studios (now Universal Television). Broadcast networks were atop of the food chain back then, with vertical integration on the rise. Fifteen years later, broadcast and cable has been upstaged by streaming, with vertical integration still a factor in pickup and renewal decisions.
Pope is starting with somewhat of a clean slate as several of the independent TV studio’s longest-running hits announced end dates over the past month, The Blacklist on NBC, Cobra Kai on Netflix and Outlander on Starz. There also has been a momentum amid a challenging quarter for parent company Sony Corp., with a string of good news in January, from the strong launches of The Last Of Us on HBO, which already has been renewed for a second season, and The Accused on Fox, to Starz greenlighting the Outlander prequel, Blood Of My Blood.
In her first interview since leaving Spectrum Originals to take over Sony TV, Pope speaks with Deadline about her priorities and how her career to date as an executive and producer on shows such as New Girl has prepared her for the job. She addresses the challenges of the broadcast business and ways to offset declining license fees, including a potential change of exclusivity terms, as well as the prospects of The Good Doctor, The Goldbergs and S.W.A.T. carrying on and delivering streaming shows to fans with shorter breaks between seasons. Additionally, she gives her take on the industry-wide cost-cutting, Sony TV’s comedy plans and its unique position as a studio without an affiliated network or a streamer.
Pope also talks about exploiting top Sony IP such as Spider-Man, Karate Kid and popular PlayStation games. She shares whether there may be a Cobra Kai followup series and what Sony titles she is personally a fan of.
DEADLINE: What are your priorities coming into this job?
POPE: We produce some of the biggest and most successful shows in the world. And to some degree, you could say, okay, just keep doing that. But, as we know, the business is changing so much, and the pressure has gotten higher. I think we’re all feeling that everyone’s examining their businesses really closely and trying to be really deliberate about the money they spend and how they spend it.
Having been a buyer, a seller, a producer, at a big legacy network, at startups, at a production company, I bring a holistic point of view to SPT. Having been in all of these roles, let’s put ourselves in their position and make sure that we’re anticipating the needs, the questions, the solutions before they even present themselves so that we can always be ahead of it and always be bringing that value back to the shows.
DEADLINE: Is Sony not having its own streaming service making the studio vulnerable as a number of streamers have been pairing down their lineups by pulling existing series?
POPE: I think this slimdown is hitting everyone, and I think it’s forcing all of us to raise our game. I don’t feel like we’re particularly vulnerable. Sometimes mandates change, it’s heartbreaking and there’s really nothing you can do about it, and other times, something is so relevant that they couldn’t possibly make a bottom line, money decision against it because they just love the show so much. I think we’ve got to continue to make the shows relevant and important and well produced.
The view of Sony not having a streamer is really changing and evolving. The thing I feel so clearly is that we don’t have any second agenda, we don’t have any split focus. When we tell creators our goal is to bring your show out into the marketplace and find the best home for it, the place that passionately wants it the most, there’s no asterisks on that.
We also don’t have a split focus as an organization where it’s like, are we going for subs or are we going for quality, are we going for buying things from the inside, outside, all of the pressures that come to bear when you have an internal streaming platform. We continue to stay very, very focused on making the best shows in the world, and we don’t have any other force, pushing us in another direction.
DEADLINE: Talk about the strategy of mining Sony IP for cable/streaming series. In the past several years, the studio has finally been able to get adaptations of PlayStation properties going, starting with breakout The Last Of Us, followed by Twister Metal and God Of War.
POPE: IP and expanding universes continue to be a big part of our business for sure, and I think a big part of everyone’s business. I agree with you the PlayStation IP has become more and more important — The Last of Us was just renewed for season two — and we have a really close relationship with PlayStation and their creatives.
The way I view all of the IP here, whether it’s Sony Music, PlayStation, legacy IP from either TV or film, it’s all making Sony as a whole stronger. So there’s a real focus, from Tokyo, through Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony [Vinciquerra], through [Sony Pictures’ Chairman of Global TV Studios] Ravi [Ahuja]. It’s all about working on the internal levers that we have here to increase our standing in the entertainment community overall. There’s been great cooperation that I’ve been really impressed with I’m happy to take advantage of and be a part of.
DEADLINE: What is some of your favorite Sony IP, titles that you either would like to tackle as an executive or you just enjoy as a fan?
POPE: There’s so much. I work in the Lear building, and to bump into Norman Lear on the lot, Mr. Norman Lear, legend Norman Lear, it’s so inspiring, it’s really incredible how much his shows continue to endure around the world. That’s the dream, to create something that continues to touch people over decades.
Also, I’ve been able to spend some time with the Cobra Kai guys since I got here (I knew Josh [Heald] a little bit beforehand), and they walked me through the process of how they made that show. Everyone can talk about how popular and successful it is but the process by which they use the original movie footage in the show is so unique, they use deleted scenes, they use different angles. They talk about it as, in another show it would be flashbacks, but for them the movie is the flashbacks, and it’s just a brilliant way to think about — I don’t know if people call Cobra Kai a reboot — but it’s an extension of that universe in a way that’s so crafted and so smart.
And I was number one president of the fan club of The Boys before I started here, so I’m really torn about, do I watch the cuts before they’re on? I’m such a fan, I kind of don’t want it to be spoiled for me.
There’s a lot of really important IP here, we’re working on God of War, the PlayStation title, which is still in the early stages. I know the game pretty well, and I’m so impressed with what they’re already doing in terms of building out that world and expanding, keeping all the values of the game but also expanding it so that if you don’t know the game, it’s still going to be a really satisfying show on its own.
That’s always the challenge with adapting IP, I think people somehow think it’s an easier job to develop IP, but, in many ways, it’s harder than coming up with an original idea because you have to know what is core, the most incredibly foundational pieces of the source material. And then you also have to know what isn’t going to work for an entertaining TV show, and you really have to allow it to become its own thing.
DEADLINE: One of the biggest IPs that Sony owns is Spider-Man, which is finally being exploited in TV with a suite of shows at Amazon’s MGM+ and Prime Video, starting with Silk, which has been a slow burn coming together. How quickly will we see that universe expand?
POPE: It’s a huge focus certainly for all of us here, and for me in particular. I was already a fan of Angela Kang, so I’m really, really excited to be working with her on Silk. She’s just brilliant and a total pro.
This is also an example of working really closely with Tom Rothman and Sanford Panitch, and the motion picture group, to make sure that we are in lockstep with them and also executing at the same level. They’ve done such an incredible job with that franchise, so we want to make sure we’re executing at that level.
DEADLINE: Most long-running Sony series, like The Blacklist, The Goldbergs, The Good Doctor, The Boys and Outlander, have had offshoots but not Cobra Kai. There’s a new Karate Kid movie. Is this how that universe is expanding, straddling film and TV, or could there be more Cobra Kai shows?
POPE: They have some ideas in terms of expanding Cobra Kai and coming at the Karate Kid legacy in different ways. But yes, the movie is a good example too. It’s all of these. I think we’ve all learned these worlds can exist together and they can feel cohesive and they can feel additive, especially for the fans, and feel like big, big worlds that exist on lots of different levels, they don’t necessarily all exist in the same plane.
Audiences are so savvy now and accepting multiple levels of the IP so the Cobra Kai universe lives on, that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: As Cobra Kai, The Blacklist and Outlander are coming to an end, do you think other long-running Sony shows like The Good Doctor and The Goldbergs could keep going for a few more years?
POPE: I do. What’s interesting about those shows is, certainly something like The Good Doctor, it’s as brilliant this season as it was in its first season. Freddie Highmore is just so incredible, and obviously [showrunner] David Shore is a guy who knows how to execute this show at a really high level. I could definitely see some of them continuing. Is that continuing by expanding the universe and doing more – maybe.
For instance, we’re really excited about The Good Lawyer, the backdoor pilot spin-off of The Good Doctor, and recently announced Blood of My Blood, the prequel to Outlander. We are already expanding The Boys franchise in multiple ways, and S.W.A.T. is doing well for CBS, certainly that’s another one that could just keep on truckin’.
DEADLINE: How are you planning to deal with the recent focus on tightening license fees and budgets of broadcast series amid declining linear ratings?
POPE: I came up in broadcast, and I love broadcast. Not only did I work at NBC and NBC Studios and Universal but I produced New Girl for Fox for seven seasons so I recognize the value of it. Knowing Sony from a buyer perspective or from a competitor perspective over the years, broadcast is an important part of Sony’s business historically as well. So, I came in just trying to understand how it’s evolved since it has been awhile since I was on the studio side of broadcast, and, it’s just a really, really challenging business proposition on all sides.
I think everybody is trying to figure out what’s the next evolution of the broadcast licensing structure, what’s the next evolution of production, budgeting, release of how many episodes per season. Everything’s being examined in a good way; everybody’s going to try a bunch of different iterations and see what works.
Also, there’s so much transition everywhere, at all of these entertainment companies, so we might try all these iterations and then the structures might change again, and then you try something new. One way in which we’re different from everybody else is, we can be as nimble as possible, and we can try various models and not get bogged down in, what will our siloed other partners say? Or what will our vertically integrated streamer say?. We have the flexibility to try a bunch of different iterations and see what works. We’re going to continue to do that.
DEADLINE: Your two new broadcast drama series, Alert and Accused, just premiered on Fox, an independent network that has been looking to do primetime scripted series at a reasonable cost, possibly as low as as $3M-$3.5M an episode for a drama. How can that be done?
POPE: Those precede me, and I probably wouldn’t comment about specific budgets or license fees anyway, but I think those are both very high quality shows. Alert has tons of action, it’s really, really well done. And Howard Gordon’s Accused, which had a big premiere, it’s such a good show; it’s an anthology, so there’s incredible cast in every episode, It’s really, really good. I would challenge anybody to say ‘Oh, these look low budget’, I wouldn’t call them low budget.
DEADLINE: There also has been talk about Sony TV possibly going down from 7 to 6 days of filming for broadcast shows.
POPE: No, there’s no mandate like that, and there are plenty of shows that we do for broadcast that are more than that. There are certain shows that are designed, maybe they have one set, and maybe it’s really easy to do less days, and then there are other shows that are action or are out on location and it’s just not realistic. We don’t believe in a one size fits all.
DEADLINE: Sony TV pulled away from broadcast comedy under the previous regime. The top 2 Sony TV comedy execs who exited three months ago are yet to be replaced, triggering some rumors that the studio may be scaling back on comedy. Are you?
POPE: I’ve been around long enough and seen enough things declared dead — drama’s dead, comedy’s dead scripted’s dead, unscripted’s dead. I am seeing them all roar back. So I don’t really believe any genre is ever going to be dead. I think, certainly comedy tends to be more challenging on a budget and deal basis and not sell as well foreign. It just tends to be a more challenging proposition.
That said, we have a really good comedy streaming business that we’re continuing to build. We have a good adult animation business that we’re continuing to build. So, we’re not pulling away from comedy.. We’re just trying to be really deliberate and thoughtful about what we’re doing, what we’re spending time on and why. There’s a lot of talent here, and we want to make sure that we’re spending our time as smartly as we can contributing the most that we can to our bottom line.
We’ve made some changes in the comedy department and we still have leadership in that department to fill. So, I understand why those rumors are out there, but we’ve said very clearly we’re not getting out of the comedy business.
DEADLINE: Still, the current broadcast comedy model is not financially advantageous for studios.
POPE: Yes, it’s really hard. As I said, I produced a broadcast comedy for seven seasons, and it was the joy of my life. And I really would love to be able to do that again. Obviously, for our library — and everyone’s library — those comedies are always very valuable in the long term. But we have some other really exciting business; Freevee is doing some really exciting comedy work, and we have some great comedies at Apple, like The Afterparty, so we’re definitely producing a lot of comedy, we’re always looking for those opportunities. In broadcast, if suddenly there’s somehow a deal that can make sense for us, we will jump into it, but it’s just got to make sense.
DEADLINE: How is it being an independent studio trying to do business with vertically-integrated broadcast networks?
POPE: Back in the day, [former Warner Bros. TV head] Peter Roth used to always say, ‘Listen, you have your in-house studio, and I know you love them the best. We just want to be your second favorite studio.’ I always loved that, and that’s one of the statements I’m manifesting over here — not to sound too LA — but we do want to be everybody’s favorite studio outside of their own, that is absolutely our goal.
DEADLINE: I’ve heard that, going forward Sony TV may be selling broadcast shows only in conjunction with a library streaming deal at the network’s affiliated platform which already has in-season streaming rights because all networks require it. Any truth?
POPE: I think there are definitely places that are looking at a domestic buyout, For us, we just want the most flexibility to build the asset. I think Ghosts got a lot of exposure off Paramount+, even though it is on CBS. So, I think everybody’s looking at, how do we break through, how do we get the audience to find the show, and therefore build the asset. And a domestic buyout model is a good way to do that. And although I don’t think we have a closed deal on anything with a domestic buyout, it’s something we’re open to, and buyers are exploring.
DEADLINE: Any other elements of broadcast deals’ framework that are being examined?
POPE: I think the other big thing we’re all pushing and examining is the exclusivity terms. Do any of these places really need these 10-year post term deals, is there something to getting into a non-exclusive deal sooner? With all these AVODs, there are certainly more buyers in the non-exclusive world right now. Do we want to get to exploiting those rights sooner? As I said about the domestic buyout, the thing that we find is that ubiquity helps the show, just being available helps people find it. And so, is there something about building the asset through a bit more ubiquity? That’s something I think everybody’s looking at, what is the exclusivity value term?
DEADLINE: Did your experience at Spectrum, where you had to produce more with less, prepare you for the Sony job?
POPE: Yeah, it did. I had to come up with new models and I had to figure out how to make premium shows that weren’t $10 million an episode. I stand by the quality of all the shows that we made. I’ve always had this thing in me that’s like, we can do shows that are A++, and that doesn’t equal A++ budget. I also believe in spending the money where you need to spend the money and not nickel and diming, trying to save five cents and then losing the asset that can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s about making those smart choices, it’s about saying, okay, if we really believe in this piece, do we believe that the strength of the piece is in the character work? Maybe we’re going to spend a little more on casting to get the very, very best actors we can, but then we’re going to do some scenes that are just like two people at the kitchen table talking.
I always remember this episode of Masters of Sex that was just the two of them in a hotel room, and it was a master class in character work. Sometimes TV is really just about touching you emotionally and not spectacle. It’s not right for every show but I do think that it’s about making those choices and having the confidence of your own creative instincts and having confidence in your creative team to say yeah, I believe in you and I believe we can execute this at the highest level and making those choices and trusting in those choices.
DEADLINE: We are no longer at the height of the overall deal marketplace, but what is your strategy for attracting top talent and keeping your biggest creators in the fold?
POPE: I think that was a particular moment in time, that boom time. It’s been interesting talking to people who got some of these big deals at other places, either made deals directly with streamers or made deals at companies that maybe they thought were more independent, and then got a streaming service and things changed.
I think there’s a real reassessment going on, not just on the studio and business side of things, but on the writer side as well. These writers want to make shows, they are show creators and that’s what they do. If they’re in a deal for a period of time where they aren’t getting anything made, and they don’t have any options to try and get it made somewhere else, it’s really, really hard, and I think for many of them, the kind of golden handcuffs just weren’t worth it.
So I think we’re going to see writers emerging in the marketplace, looking at deals a little differently. I think the sort of standard exclusive overall deal that runs two to four years, I’m not sure a lot of people are going to want that.
On our side, sometimes you have to double down on people who are delivering for you, and we’re definitely not afraid to double down on the talent that’s delivering. I think we’ll continue to see some of these bigger deals but then also have a lot more variety of things you can do you. Maybe a writer just wants to pursue one project and doesn’t want to be locked up for three years to do it, and you make a one-off deal with them, take it out and sell it in the marketplace.
DEADLINE: What do you consider your biggest challenges?
POPE: The thing I’ve tasked myself and the teams with this year is examining the time — somebody was calling it slippage — the way in which these shows can be as much as two years in between seasons. They can take 16 months to two years for the entire production cycle for a season, and we’re talking about eight to 10 episodes.
These shows are big, some of them are giant, they might as well be blockbuster movies every episode, but at the same time, it’s not great for the fans to have that big period of time in between. It’s awkward because the platforms have to re-market a show two years after the previous season came out, and it’s not great for us as producers to have these shows that we can’t repeat in any kind of compressed timeline.
I don’t think it’s good for creators either because they end up spending so much time on each season. It’s all about making sure that we’re protecting the show, and for the creator it’s their time and effort and their ability to tell the stories over multiple seasons, which is the art and the beauty of TV, it’s a novelization of the characters’ stories. When we lose that, we start to lose a key foundational part of our medium.
So that’s something we are focused on, trying to bring a little more production and timeline hustle to the whole process, just to make sure that these shows get to the fans as quickly as they can.