Networks eye pilot production as strike looms

The TV biz wrapped up its “very different” (as execs noted at every opportunity) upfront week on Thursday.

But network and studio executives were headed not for vacation but back home to a busy schedule and plenty of work. Many pilots and series are still in production as a hedge against a possible actors strike this summer.

Despite the doom and gloom that has enveloped the primetime biz since it was turned upside down by the writers strike, execs are leaving Gotham this week with renewed hope that broadcasters will stem the post-strike trend of declining ratings and will be able to re-engage viewers. Maybe it was just the seductive influence of all those sizzle reels, but execs say they’re up for the challenge.

“There are two instinctive reactions: fight or flight. We’re going to fight,” said Fox Broadcasting Co. topper Peter Liguori. “We refuse to let broadcast TV shrink. We’re going to take bold moves to offset that.”

The limited number of new shows added by ABC, CBS and Fox to their fall skeds was a sign that each of those nets has bench strength. NBC, on the other hand, is in the midst of a reconstruction, which surely influenced the Peacock’s decision to mount the “NBC Universal Experience” event highlighting the overall company rather than spotlighting the broadcast web per se.

Overall, there’s a sense that the industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief. Despite fewer pilots to show off and fewer new shows on the skeds, the broadcast webs made it through upfront week without much squawking from media buyers, and that’s assuaged concerns about the sky falling in on the 2008-09 season because of the disruption to pilot season.

“They were a bit scaled down and had less product to show, but that’s understandable,” said Shari Ann Brill, senior VP and director of programming services at buying firm Carat USA. “The fact is we are going to get product, and it’s going to be introduced year-round. People watch TV year- round.”

The shock to the system caused by the 100-day work stoppage may have a silver lining in forcing the primetime development process to play out on a more manageable timetable rather than during the traditional January-April pilot season crunch. ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson told buyers at the Alphabet’s upfront that it still has 17 pilots in various stages of development.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging year, but an interesting one, in terms of being analytical about our business and how we go about development,” said 20th Century Fox TV chair Dana Walden.

“We will see more development over the summer. This is great for the business,” she said, noting how hard it can be to assemble all of the right elements for a project under a tight deadline. Twentieth has at least five pilots skedded to lense this summer, and probably more before the year’s out, Walden said.

This year, projects are moving forward on their “own time frame, and what’s right for the show, as opposed to trying to push those shows into some sort of schedule from the outside,” said Universal Media Studios prexy Katherine Pope.

“The real test is going to be in the fall,” Pope added. “It’s too early to say, but I believe qualitatively the shows are going to benefit.”

CBS Paramount Network TV prexy David Stapf is among those who won’t have any downtime post-upfronts. His studio is shooting a pilot for Sci Fi Channel over Memorial Day weekend and has the Glenn Gordon Caron pilot “Meant to Be’s” set to shoot in June for CBS.

“I’m flying home Thursday to make a 1 p.m. casting session,” Stapf said.

At their presentations, ABC and Fox even opted to show a few teasers of series still in development — the kind of clips usually reserved for the early spring pre-upfront gathering with advertisers.

ABC featured a clip of Max Mutchnick and David Kohan discussing their project for the net, among others in development. Fox showcased a few other projects that haven’t actually been picked up, including Paul Attanasio drama “Courtroom K.”

From the perspective of the studios, the limited number of pilots shot helped improve their development batting averages — at least so far. Warner Bros. TV got all four of its completed drama pilots — Fox’s “Fringe,” CBS’ “Eleventh Hour” and “The Mentalist” and CW’s “Surviving the Filthy Rich” — on the air.

“The ratio of success is higher with fewer pilots getting on the air, and there’s greater efficiency. There’s truth to that,” said Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth. “But there’s also been an impact on the array of choice network programmers have at their fingertips,” he noted.

“What shows didn’t make it because they were rushed?” Roth said. “This has made a difficult and challenged landscape even more so.”

One issue that has weighed heavily on the minds of studio execs in this turbulent year has been the softening of cable’s appetite for off-network dramas. Shows that once fetched upward of $1 million per episode in license fees are now forced to cobble together deals with multiple outlets to approach the $650,000-$750,000 level.

That’s one reason why the studios have become more selective about the projects they commit to. For 20th, a big-budget property like Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse,” set for Fox’s midseason slate, is a no-brainer because of its range of exploitation opportunities.

“It’s important for us to be very selective about what we develop these days,” 20th chairman Gary Newman said. “We not only keep an eye on the domestic market and the international market, but we look for projects that are distinctive enough to have good DVD (sales) opportunities and digital options,” he said. “If you can hit those boxes, the softer (off-network) market is a challenge you can handle.”

As ever, the most important test or a studio is not landing shows on the air but keeping them on the air long enough to amass enough segs for syndication. Sony Pictures TV landed big wins in securing renewals for third-season comedies ” ‘Til Death,” on Fox, and CBS’ “Rules of Engagement,” as well as a pickup for its animated co-production with 20th, “Sit Down, Shut Up.”

“We really have been working in a system that encourages true creative cannibalism, where all of us compete to gobble up the best actors and directors we can, slap it all together and see what sticks,” said Zack Van Amburg, co-prexy of programming and production at Sony TV with Jamie Erlicht. “Now we’re all being a bit more methodical with new and returning shows,” Van Amburg said.

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