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The heat has been turned up in TV’s development hell, making it more difficult for all but a handful of suppliers to break through on the established networks.

Executives cite various factors contributing to the ongoing crunch, including a gradually increasing reliance by the networks on in-house production, new commitments to marquee-name producers like the Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg troika, and a tendency to stay with borderline shows longer. These trends have helped make primetime real estate, at least in the eyes of some, a scarcer commodity than ever.

“There’s a finite A list of producers, maybe a roster of 12 in the whole industry-the Stephen Bochcos, the Matt Williamses-who have nothing to worry about,” says producer Fred Silverman, who heads an eponymous independent company. “For the studios with rosters of hits, such as Warner and Disney, it will be pretty much business as usual. But the marginal guys trying to get (on the air) are going to have a tougher time than ever before.”

The data tell a scary story for all but a handful of players looking to land a series commitment. A scant decade ago, the major suppliers of network series, defined as those with four or more pilots, provided about 60% of the projects in development, according to a study by Saatchi & Saatchi advertising. Last season, the list of major suppliers provided nearly 90% and this year the tally could easily be higher.

“Each year the major suppliers represent a bigger piece of the development pie,” says Betsy Frank, executive veep of Saatchi & Saatchi.

New shows will have a tougher time in part because of the success of this year’s rookie crop, or at least the networks’ patience with marginal series. Nearly half of this year’s 28 new series have received full-season orders, and 20 have been picked up for at least 18 episodes.

Holding off on the hook

On the flip side, there’s a shortage of full-blown hits-with the exception of NBC’s “ER”-meaning many of those series are on the bubble in terms of returning next year. Still, given the ever-rising cost of developing and launching a new series, the networks are more willing than ever to stay the course with shows that in seasons past would have gotten the hook by the November sweeps.

“There’s more of a tendency than there has been in the past at the networks and the studios to give a borderline show more of a chance to prove itself,” says Tom Thayer, Universal TV prexy. “We’re putting less emphasis on development for next season, simply because we’ve got so much that’s either on the air or shooting now.”

Underlining the scarcity of primetime turf is the commitments each of the webs already has in place for next season.

At ABC, the network will make sure it generates something for next season out of its high-profile alliance with the troika of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. In addition, the network

-already hurting when it comes to openings for new dramas-has given a series commitment to Bochco on a new drama, “Murder One,” the seventh series generated under the “NYPD Blue” producer’s 10-series deal with the network.

ABC also is talking a planned “Home Improvement” spinoff with Wind Dancer Production Group, which produces the series, and developing several projects via its in-house units as well as its partnership with Brillstein-Grey Entertainment.

There’s still room

When ABC linked up with the Katzenberg trio, Capital Cities/ABC prez Robert Iger was adamant in denying that ABC didn’t have room for new suppliers. “The entity with most-favored-nation status with us will be the entity with the best product to attract the best possible demos,” he said.

Not surprisingly, studio toppers with leverage at the Alphabet web are taking Iger at his word.

“ABC’s schedule has aged,” says Walt Disney TV president Dean Valentine, whose studio provides ABC with the hits “Home Improvement” and “Ellen.” The network “needs help on a bunch of nights at 8 p.m. and is likely to take at least one of their 9 p.m. hits and use it to start a night. If I get one or two of the slots that opens up, I’ll have gotten the job done there.”

Others are not so sanguine about their prospects at the Alphabet web. “If you’re not in-house, Disney or Warner, you can almost forget it at ABC,” says a veteran independent producer. “The deck is stacked against you.”

Similar grumbling can be heard about Fox Broadcasting Co., which has already stated its desire to have a cozier acquaintance with sister unit 20th Century Fox TV as well as other in-house entities. In addition, Fox extended multiple pilot commitments to New World Entertainment as part of its affiliation agreement last spring. Indeed, New World’s interest { Variety, Dec. 12-18) in acquiring Stephen J. Cannell Prods, has in part been spurred on by having a proven producer in-house to take advantage of its Fox commitments.

“Even guys like Cannell, who have a long history of producing hits, have seen the writing on the wall,” says the veteran producer. “They know they don’t have a chance alone. They need to make an alliance with somebody like a New World that has firm commitments from a network.”

An eye on the Eye

The production community is more optimistic about prospects for the coming season at CBS, which has had more than its share of primetime woes this season, and to a lesser extent at NBC, where there’s need for some comic relief. “At CBS, it’s pick your spot. It’s all there for the taking if you have the right product,” says Valentine. “And NBC is going to need at least three or four new sitcoms. I wouldn’t call that bleak.”

Still, CBS and NBC have several deals in place for next season, with the Eye web extending commitments to actors including Don Johnson, Joan Cusack, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Cathy Moriarty. As part of its efforts to reach younger viewers, the web has ponied up a series commitment to “Melrose Place” creator Darren Star.

Of course, if there’s perceived to be a “No vacancy” sign out at the quartet of network inns, there’s always two fledgling weblets, the WB network and United Paramount network, to pitch. “You could make the argument that this season there are two more places to pitch than a year ago,” says Saatchi & Saatchi’s Frank.

True in part, but the two new webs are being formed more as a defensive measure by the studios backing them because they fear shrinking prospects as suppliers. As a result, when the two mini-networks launch this month, the vast majority of their shows will be in-house productions-three of which were passed on last year by an existing network.

Brian howry contributed to this report.

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