A glance at the more than 100 pilot orders from the Big Three networks and Fox Broadcasting paints a grim picture for independents looking to break into the series game.

Studio consolidation, a dearth of available timeslots and network in-house production allsuggest there may be little cheering in the production community come May, when networks announce their fall schedules.

Major studios like Warner Bros., Paramount and the newly consolidated Columbia TriStar have at least a stake in nearly 75% of what’s been ordered so far, compared to less than 20% for all independent production entities.

In part that’s because the big keep getting bigger. Warner Bros. TV and sister Time Warner-affiliated companies Witt Thomas Prods. and HBO Independent Prods. alone account for more than 25% of all pilot orders.

In addition, the recent merger wave has drawn more companies under a single corporate umbrella. Take the Viacom-Paramount-Spelling TV troika or, to a lesser degree, Columbia TriStar TV. Once run as two independent divisions, Sony’s network production wing now accounts for a total of roughly 17 pilots, all under the supervision of production chief Jon Feltheimer.

Another major supplier, Disney, has seen its pilot orders dwindle from last season. Yet even those with lengthy pilot rosters will acknowledge that the process is no longer a volume business — especially with so few time periods seemingly available.

“No doubt this has been a tough pilot season,” says Disney TV exec VP Dean Valentine. “However, we haven’t veered from our philosophy. We’ve always been very selective in our development, preferring a selective rather than a scattershot approach. Especially in this climate, we’re not going to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.”

Even major players with the bulk of the orders realize it’s harder than ever to get a primetime berth.

“What we’ve got is the most tickets in a lottery,” says Warner Bros. TV president Leslie Moonves.

Independents made inroads last fall by scoring series orders on such shows as “Harts of the West” and “Angel Falls” but have seen their orders shrink as well.

The most prolific indie, in fact, is former NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff, who has drawn a bead on a quintet of network pilots under his recently formed Moving Target Prods. banner in addition to projects for cable, firstrun syndication and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Being a true independent, Tartikoff says, “is like being in the short-film area at the Academy Awards: It’s getting to be a smaller and smaller category.”

Still, Tartikoff says he’s “committed to this course” and feels the consolidation among suppliers will create opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Standing pat

More than ever, the networks seem destined to stand pat with what they have, exhibiting a willingness to keep marginal performers on their rosters instead of going with the unknown.

ABC in particular is perceived to have little need for new series — especially in the drama area with its reliance on news hours. CBS has also shored up its Friday lineup and can thus target its development to relatively few time periods.

“You could probably sit down and predict what 75% to 80% of the network schedules will be,” says International Creative Management TV topper Alan Berger. “The studios are making all these pilots and you have to ask yourself, ‘Where are they all going to go?’ I think everybody involved will be sitting back in July and saying, ‘What’s wrong with this picture.’ “

What’s likely to be said is that the number of pilots a studio is willing to do will come down, unless the networks are willing to pick up more of the cost. “It’s still just as costly as it’s ever been,” says Creative Artists Agency head of television Lee Gabler. “But there’s less opportunity. After this season, everybody is going to take a look at the volume of pilots being produced. Let’s say you produce 15 pilots and only get two or three on. That’s a lot of deficit to justify.”

Target practice

The Big Three network in-house divisions are also taking a relatively targeted approach to pilot production, accounting for about 15 pilots among them — with two of ABC Prods.’ projects for CBS. While the number is down from last year, it represents a slightly higher percentage of total pilot orders.

Madison Avenue savants returning from the West Coast talk about network honchos, such as ABC Entertainment prexy Ted Harbert, using “a rifle as opposed to a shotgun approach” this pilot season. ABC only ordered eight drama pilots, for example, about half its usual total from recent years.

The upshot means the studios have to change the way they’re doing business. Costs have to come down and partners have to be found.

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