Studio chiefs are balking at NBC’s decision to eliminate drama pilots in favor of shorter 30-minute presentations, but the Peacock says it doesn’t plan to budge.
Meeting with reporters at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, the television heads at Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Touchstone, Studios USA and Regency said they were caught off guard by the Peacock’s mandate, announced last week by NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier.
“I would like to think, and perhaps this is naive, that they’re not going to get away with it,” said David Kissinger, prexy of Studios USA programming. “We’re not going to sit there and absorb all costs irresponsibly. I expect we’ll all be fighting it over the coming weeks.”
Drama pilots run the length of a normal hour-long program and usually serve as a series’ debut episode; presentations, on the other hand, take excerpts from an hour-long script and film a shorter (around 30 minutes) version.
If the series is picked up, producers can either reshoot a first episode or film additional scenes to fill out the hour.
Most of the execs said they’d already lodged a complaint with the network. But Ancier vowed that NBC “will not make any changes. We will stay at presentations,” he said, adding that the net will not make any exceptions to the new rule.
The studio heads said they were especially irked by the timing of Ancier’s announcement, which comes as pilot season quickly approaches. Twentieth Century Fox TV president Gary Newman said it was “troubling” that the mandate was announced “this late in the season as a flat-out policy and non-negotiable policy.”
Ancier insists the web’s new pilot rule shouldn’t come as a surprise to studio toppers.
“We went into the season from the first moment saying that we were doing only presentations,” Ancier said. “We told everyone that going in.”
But the studio heads said Ancier did not inform them of the switch to presentations before sharing it with the press.
“I was unaware of it until I read it,” said Gail Berman, president of Regency TV. “If you know in advance and you can create in a half hour, there is potential upside there. But to have it sprung on you after the fact, I don’t know where the upside is.”
Warner Bros. Television prexy Peter Roth said he was also left in the dark.
“I was told I was aware of it,” he said. “But somehow, it must have escaped me because I, too, only discovered this apparent policy when I read it in the trades.”
Asked why the studio chiefs are now claiming ignorance of NBC’s policy shift, Ancier suggested the toppers may have figured NBC wasn’t serious when it first told them of its plan. “They didn’t think we’d actually do it,” he said.
ABC Entertainment Television co-chair Lloyd Braun, who oversees Touchstone, countered the studio chiefs and said he had heard of an NBC shift in the works.
“I don’t know if they told everyone … (but) we’ve heard rumblings for at least a couple of months,” Braun said.
Ancier decided to go for presentations because they’re cheaper — $1.35 million vs. around $2.3 million-$2.4 million more for pilots — and because NBC would then be able to pick up more projects.
Some studio chiefs say the reduced amount that NBC is offering for pilot presentations will cause studios to incur substantially larger deficits on presentation orders from the Peacock.
Ancier insists that doesn’t have to be the case.
“The deficit’s about the same,” Ancier said. “We said (to studios), turn in as much film as you feel comfortable with. … They can make it with no deficit if they want to.”
Short form successes
Presentation proponents note numerous success stories with the shorter form, such as “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “Judging Amy.”
” ‘Buffy’ wouldn’t have gotten on the air without the presentation process,” Ancier said, explaining that the WB threw out much of the original pilot presentation of the skein. Had the pilot been at full-length, the WB might not have wanted to eat that cost.
“When you have a pilot, it’s an extra million. It’s harder to throw that away,” he said.
NBC isn’t the only network mulling a move to presentations. Braun called Ancier’s decision “smart” and said the Alphabet net was considering a similar plan.
“We’re discussing the merits,” Braun said. “We also would want to do it in a way where we can be as fair as possible to the studios.”
ABC may follow
If ABC goes ahead, the network would shift to all drama presentations like NBC, in order to create an equal playing field and avoid concerns that pilots get a better shot than presentations.
Braun said the cost savings would be “a relatively significant number.”
Arguing against the elimination of drama pilots, Newman said that it’s tougher to compete for talent with presentations.
“You typically pay actors less, they work less, you have less of a budget, so you’re paying them less,” he said.
Also, the studio execs say the decision to film a full pilot vs. a shorter presentation should be decided separately for each project, not mandated.
“We have had success with presentations — certain pieces of material lend themselves to that and others don’t,” said Steve McPherson, exec VP at Touchstone Television. “I think it’s a case-by-case basis.”