Studios still top guns in pilot world

If pilot orders can be viewed as at-bats in the game of prime time series, then the major studios — despite increased network activity — still have the best slugging percentage.

Based on development presentations by the three networks and Fox Broadcasting Co., the major studios (including Twentieth TV and the Fox TV Stations, sister divisions within Fox Inc.) hold distribution rights to 81 — or just under two-thirds — of the 124 series hopefuls mentioned as candidates for next fall.

The three networks, meanwhile, have production roles in 20 pilots, including two that ABC Prods. — the alphabet web’s in-house production wing — will produce for Fox Broadcasting. CBS is most active in the series area, making or partnering in eight pilots, nearly one-third of the projects the web announced.

NBC’s in-house activity, which includes four pilots from NBC Prods. and another through NBC Enterprises, is more expansive when one takes into account that NBC Prods. is a partner in five limited series under the banner “Great Escapes” as well as its emphasis on longform programming. NBC Prods. is producing three of seven miniseries in development and has a role in eight telefilms.

The number of pilots should be viewed with a grain of salt, since certain projects were omitted by the networks pending casting and others could be added at the last minute. It’s also worth noting that at least six Fox Broadcasting pilots will be produced through different wings of Fox Inc., the equivalent of an in-house production for a web.

Aside from bragging rights — since pilots are generally liabilities unless they lead to series — the “who’s making how many” discussion is significant primarily as it relates to the ongoing debate over the financial interest and syndication rules. Studios and many indies maintain that unfettering the webs would result in the extraction of distribution rights from suppliers.

From that perspective, CBS Entertainment Prods. raised some eyebrows with its role in eight pilots, though the overall network tally is up only marginally from last year. ABC Prods. is producing four pilots for ABC and two for Fox. A fifth ABC show comes from network-owned documentary arm ABC/Kane Prods.

Opportunities to get on the schedule, however, have been diminished by the networks’ increased reliance on newsmagazines, which they own, with ABC recently adding a third hour and CBS and NBC to introduce their fourth and second hours, respectively, this summer.

Among the studios, Time Warner showed its collective muscle with 30 pilots — nearly as many as any of the networks — through its various divisions, which include Lorimar TV (already prime time’s leading supplier, 17 pilots are flying under the Lorimar banner), Warner Bros. TV (six), HBO Independent Prods. (four) and Witt-Thomas Prods., which is producing four pilots, though only three will be distributed through Warner Bros. Inc. The fourth, an “Empty Nest” spinoff, falls under its previous pact with Disney.

Sony Pictures Entertainment TV Group also has a major presence in this year’s development with 21 pilots, 13 through Columbia Pictures TV and eight from TriStar TV. Both Columbia and TriStar have pilots at all four prime time services (a feat accomplished also by Paramount and Lorimar), with TriStar winning points for symmetry in the form of two projects at each service.

Disney is behind nine pilots, while Twentieth TV will produce six (three for Fox) and handle distribution on a seventh — the 13-episode commitment “NYPD Blue”– via its deal with Steven Bochco Prods.

Paramount and Universal are doing a half-dozen pilots each, and a seventh Universal show, “South Beach,” will air this summer. Both studios are also extremely active in prime time production through their syndication wings, as Warner Bros. and Lorimar are through the Prime Time Entertainment Network.

Independents, increasingly viewed as the odd party out in the prime time equation because of the high price of entry and expanded network production, are supplying roughly two dozen pilots, though many of those are relatively inexpensive reality series and several of the comedy or drama shows are being done with network backing. Hearst Entertainment Prods., Reeves Entertainment and the Gerber Co., for example, will all partner with a network on certain projects.

Reeves, Spelling TV and Castle Rock Entertainment are each producing a trio of pilots to lead indies.

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