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Summer sizzle for TV pitches

Execs can't catch a break

Summer vacation has been canceled for network development execs, particularly those at Fox and NBC.

While senior execs are still planning their early summer getaways to Martha’s Vineyard or Europe, those in the trenches aren’t getting a post-upfront break. The development pipeline is unusually crowded this year, with nets racing to plant a new crop of skeins.

NBC Entertainment exec VP of development Katherine Pope said she’s already heard about 20 to 25 pitches since the upfront.

“And if you add to that informal meetings with writers, meetings with studios, I’d say the number is easily triple that,” she said.

In the summer pipeline: Scribe Rand Ravich (“The Astronaut’s Wife”) is working on a project, while the series adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s “Lipstick Jungle” could get a greenlight in the next few weeks. On the half-hour side, network is negotiating for a couple of Britcom formats that could make their way across the Pond.

Peacock is following in the footsteps of Fox, which has been in year-round development mode for a couple of years now.

“The days of you coming back from the upfronts and your development grid has zero is over,” said Fox exec VP Craig Erwich. “We probably have, in drama development, 25 active projects. The same is probably true with comedy.”

Erwich said Fox was even taking pitches in April during the height of the pilot-season frenzy. Webheads are being much more proactive by letting the town know just what they’re looking for, as early as possible.

“You have to woo people,” Erwich said.

Pope said NBC is even telling scribes and agents not to worry if they don’t have elaborate presentations ready.

“They can just come in with ideas,” she said. “You take a lot of pressure off of the writer when you say, ‘You don’t have to do one of those pitches where it’s, “Fade in on a dark room ….”‘”

It’s all a big switch from the traditional network development cycle.

Not long ago, nets all but shut down during the six weeks between the upfronts and the Fourth of July. Just two years ago, Pope took off three weeks in June to honeymoon in Italy.

“It was fine, nothing was happening,” she said. “Not so now.”

The nonstop development cycle is being driven partly by individual network needs. For Fox that means baseball; at NBC, it’s the fact that being in fourth place means you have to try harder.

But more macro factors are also at play:

  • ABC, CBS and Fox are about to start a third season closely bunched together at the top of the Nielsen ratings. Such a competitive horse race means nets are looking for every edge possible in the quest to find the next “Desperate Housewives” or “House.”

  • Cablers are attracting bigger and better talent than ever before as they add more scripted dramas and comedies to their lineups — including mainstream faves such as “Monk” and “The Closer,” which easily could have been network hits. With cable nets developing year-round, broadcasters can’t afford to take a summer siesta.

  • The sitcom drought has yet to break, despite a few encouraging newcomers. Quest to develop a big laffer hit means nets no longer have the luxury of turning down a comedy pitch because it’s not the right “season.”

While year-round development has become a reality, there remains in some quarters the fear that being first into the pilot waters can’t be a good thing. Like studios positioning a film for Oscar love, nobody wants to be that early pitch everyone forgets about when it’s time to greenlight pilots in January.

Pope and Erwich are doing their best to break through those old fears.

“You get some of that paranoia about selling something early, that it will sit on your desk for six months,” Pope admitted. “But now we have some success stories in terms of shows piloted early making it to air.”

NBC’s “Kidnapped” and “The Black Donnellys” were both put into motion very early during the 2006 development cycle.

Fox has had similar success speeding up the cycle, ordering no fewer than four series in late April.

“Five years ago, we wouldn’t have ordered anything until two days before the upfronts,” Erwich noted.

That’s one reason net just went into production on the hourlong racecar drama “Drive,” and could soon order backup scripts for space-themed hour “Beyond.”

Both CBS and ABC say they’re open for business year-round and are hearing pitches during the summer. But industry insiders insist the pace at those nets doesn’t come close to the intensity of NBC and Fox.

As network development shifts from a purely cyclical business to a more year-round affair, execs are having to adjust the way they approach each year.

“There used to be a way of doing business where you kind of slacked off in the summer, and worked hard in the fall and then killed yourself in pilot season,” Pope said. “Now, like most people who work in real jobs, you have to work hard every day.

“We’re trying to have it not be feast or famine.”

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