Zucker puts drama on the fast track

Sept. 11 events influence scripts, veep sez

Hoping to get a headstart on casting and director choices, NBC is roaring through drama development with the goal of greenlighting all of its 2002-03 pilots by early next week, up to three weeks ahead of other networks’ schedules.

This season marks the first full development cycle for NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker, who’ll meet the press in Pasadena this morning at the semiannual Television Critics Assn. Press tour. Sesh comes a year after Zucker headed west to head primetime programming for the Peacock.

While Zucker has proven adept at maximizing NBC’s ratings via reality skeins (“Fear Factor”) and stunts (“supersized” episodes), he hasn’t yet been able to fully put his imprint on scripted programming. His ability to create new hit dramas — and even more importantly, smash comedies — will ultimately determine whether NBC holds on to its current grip on first place in key demographics.

To that end, Zucker and NBC exec VP for primetime series development Karey Burke have pushed up deadlines for producers and scribes, insisting that all scripts under pilot consideration be turned in by this weekend. Zucker, Burke and NBC drama development chief Chris Conti have already read about 75% of the net’s drama scripts and hope to have the rest finished by early next week.

“I’ve been incredibly tough on our team to make sure we’re getting things early,” Burke said. “It’s already late to be doing the most important thing we do all year in such a short amount of time.”

A meeting Thursday will further narrow down NBC’s drama scripts, but as of Tuesday, about 10 projects among scripts already read were considered solid contenders to snag a pilot greenlight, including:

  • “War Stories,” a Peter Noah-penned hour about journos covering conflicts in Pakistan and elsewhere. Jeff Goldblum is attached to star.

  • “Boomtown,” a script from Graham Yost that looks at a cross-section of a city’s legal, criminal and journalistic communities.

  • “Space,” a look at the space program from the point of view of NASA commanders. Chris Crowe wrote the script.

  • An untitled script from scribe Remi Aubuchon about cops and their family lives.

  • “One for the Money,” an actioner about a female bounty hunter based on a series of books by the same name. Phoef Sutton and Mark Legan wrote the project.

  • A Michael Duggan-penned script about a female Latina cop in Miami.

  • “Future Tense,” an exploration of the moral and legal issues caused by technology. Javier Grillo-Marxuach is the scribe.

  • “The General,” which focuses on a military commander and his two teen daughters as they move to a new base where the dad is the commanding officer. Dan Pyne and Erich Anderson are exec producers.

NBC is expected to greenlight no more than six drama pilots, as well as one or two potential low-budget hours. In the latter category, Peacock has a young King Arthur script in the works from Aubuchon and Yost.

All of the projects on NBC’s current hot list of drama contenders are from NBC Studios, with the exception of “The General” and “Space,” which are being produced by Paramount.

With frosh dramas “Crossing Jordan” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” all but certain to return next fall, Peacock’s development focus is mainly on laffers. It’s expected to produce around 15 half-hour pilots, greenlighting most within the next month.

Burke said that while NBC isn’t trying to jump on any patriotic bandwagons, the events of Sept. 11 have influenced the scripts writers have turned in, as well as NBC’s pilot choices.

“People want to see characters who are doing things they can be proud of,” Burke said. “My job is to, as best we can, read the mood of the country and figure out where the hearts and minds of viewers are going to be six months from now. Gritty, bleak worlds aren’t the places people want to go.”

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