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Series try to fly like their pilots

Future segs deal with cutbacks, cast changes

As TV pilots increasingly look and feel more like movies, producers are finding it tough to make the leap to the second episode — after the big-name pilot director has gone back to features, the budget has been sliced in half and the production budget has been reduced to one week.

Thanks to TV’s increasing box office mentality, the pressure among pilots to stand out has grown immensely as the nets look for “event-style” shows that can be easily marketed and will open big.

Hence the move toward larger pilot budgets ($7.5 million for “Bionic Woman,” for example); longer shoots (15 days is the norm); and marquee directors like Spike Lee (who helmed “Shark’s” pilot). The goal: Get this project on the primetime schedule, and worry about how to sustain it later.

“There’s a feature appetite in place with the people writing pilots and those brought in to direct them,” says producer Michael Robin (“Nip/Tuck,” “The Closer”). “And there’s less of a desire on the studio and network’s part to say no. They want that big sales tool.”

But the move to bigger and louder pilots makes it more difficult to live up to the promise of the first episode.

“We set a certain expectation for viewers that the pilot episode is what a regular episode of our show will look like,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden. “It’s challenging.”

For example, there has been a recent flurry of cast changes on frosh skeins such as “The Bionic Woman” and “Life Is Wild.”

And ABC opted to pull back from the pilot to “Cavemen,” which the net felt jumped too far into the show’s exposition without proper character development. Now, the pilot episode will be reworked into the show’s fifth or sixth seg, and its second episode will air as the show’s first.

“In essence, we’re shooting a whole new pilot,” ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson says.

In New Orleans, helmer Brad Turner is helping rework Fox’s post-Hurricane Katrina drama “K-Ville” for its second episode.

The pilot was shot like a film, with a very specific plot point and a dark look at 2007 New Orleans. But to make it work as a skein producers hope will go to 100 episodes or beyond, honchos (including exec producers Jonathan Lisco and Craig Silverstein) had to reshape the show into a slightly lighter, more procedural-driven look at two cops (one with a secret, which is hinted at in the pilot).

“(That hint) spins us into a series in a very natural way,” Turner says. “To spin into a series, you need some ongoing issues between your lead characters. (The pilot) was a movie, I told them. I need to create longevity for them.”

Turner was tapped to handle the “K-Ville” assignment (he spends most of his year on “24”) partly because he’s become one of 20th Century Fox TV’s go-to guys when it comes to second episodes.

It’s a unique niche that Turner says he relishes. Last year, Turner helmed the second episode of “Standoff”; the year before that, it was “Prison Break.”

“In a way, it’s equal to the pressure that’s put on you when you direct a pilot,” Turner says. “You’ve got a lot of people relying on you — the studio, the network, the showrunners, the writers, the actors — who want to spend the next five years doing this.”

Shooting the first regular episode is most nerve-wracking for the lead cast (especially if there has been a casting change), he adds.

“There’s a lot of tension on that first day of shooting,” Turner says. “There’s that feeling of, ‘Now that we’re picked up, we have to fight the ratings war.’ ”

Unlike entering a well-oiled series machine, Turner and other second-episode directors must spend time figuring out how to carry out the writers’ champagne wishes on a Budweiser budget. And they don’t get any extra time to plan it out (beyond the standard week prior to shooting).

“The toughest is bridging the gap between creative and production,” Turner says. “Production wants to adapt the regular series feel as soon as possible, while creative wants to keep the movie-like nature of the pilot.”

But if they pull it off, that second episode will likely be the template that remains in place on the show.

“It’s been proven to us by these talented directors that you don’t have to compromise episodically because of the budget,” Walden says. “You need someone who’s really smart and talented to come in and establish that eight days is enough time to produce a quality TV show. You don’t get all the bells and whistles of the pilot, you sacrifice rehearsal time, some time to light scenes.”

Sometimes it takes more than one episode to get the series in full swing. Walden says “Prison Break” took a few episodes to hit its stride, partly because “their pilot set the bar so high,” she adds.

For other shows, the pilot ultimately worked better as a stand-alone mini-movie than part of a series.

In the case of “Standoff,” it was the unusual tone between dramatic action and a romantic comedy that probably required longer shoots and more time in post-production to hit the scenes just right, Walden says — time that could be afforded a pilot, but not a series.

Of course, some second-episode stresses could be avoided if producers attempted to keep their pilot episodes under check.

“Some of my teachers were people like (‘NYPD Blue’ alums) Greg Hoblit and Steven Bochco,” says Robin. “They wanted to make sure when they were doing their pilot it was an accurate representation of what to expect on the series level. Otherwise, episode two has to be a big step down, and you have to re-educate the audience on what they should expect on the series level. That’s a tall task.”

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