Network makes plans to divide pilot season

Fox is moving forward with plans to formally split its pilot season into two.

With eight pilots already in the works this summer, Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly told reporters Monday the net plans to screen those projects in December — and make a flurry of early series orders before the holidays.

At Fox’s portion of the summer TV Critics Assn. press tour, Reilly said he hoped to make the double-sided pilot season a lasting change at the net.

Fox will continue to develop toward the traditional pilot cycle as well, with another round of screenings and orders in the spring. But because the writers’ strike impacted the usual pilot season calendar, the net is seizing the opportunity to make some permanent shifts.

“That’s going to begin to be the next step toward year-round (development), which is what we’ve been experimenting with for quite some time,” Reilly noted.

Pilots in the works include the Sam Baum entry “Lie to Me,” starring Tim Roth; the Paul Attanasio drama “Courtroom K”; the space thriller “Virtuality”; the comedy “Boldly Going Nowhere”; Kevin Falls’ take on the Argentine drama “Lalola”; the Wilmer Valderrama vehicle “The Emancipation of Ernesto”; and the Shaun Cassidy entry “Inseparable.”

“(The strike) forced the hand of something we were trying to evolve to anyway,” Reilly said.

He expressed some doubt as to whether other nets, which have also raised the specter of “year-round development,” would stick to that philosophy once strike-impacted schedules returned to normal.

“There was a lot of blabber about it,” he said. “We’ll see who follows through on it. We made a strategic decision. In order to have a December screening, you need to have product in the pipeline right now. You can’t just decide to do a December pilot screening — you’ll never make the dates. We’ll see who really puts their money where their mouth is on year-round.”

Fox has saved a chunk of its new fare for midseason over the past several years; what will change this year, however, is the sheer amount of new series the net’s competitors will be launching.

“There will be a lot of product going on in January by default,” Reilly said. “It is our high season (when shows like ’24’ and ‘American Idol’ return). We’re going to be strong. … The other guys are going to be playing into the teeth of that.”

On the comedy front, Reilly said he planned to hand out seed money to scribes to shoot their own YouTube-style videos before coming in to pitch their concepts. Exec added he was inspired by the comedic web shorts that some writers produced during the strike as well as the recent Sarah Silverman/Jimmy Kimmel “I’m F-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck” shorts.

“You want to shoot something before you come in? Don’t sit on our couch and pitch us. Go shoot something and then pop it in the machine, even if it’s not for air,” Reilly said he plans to tell scribes. “We’ve got to do anything to mix it up.”

That also includes changing the way sitcoms are pitched: Reilly and company plan to hear comedy pitches on the writers’ turf — in their offices, at their homes, at restaurants — rather than the usual, sterile network office environment.

“A lot of confidence has left the creative space,” Reilly said of the comedy marketplace. “I see really talented people coming in skittish, not knowing what to pitch or what will sell. And I see executives trying to figure out where is that nerve to hit. … We’re not giving up. Our comedy brand has been anemic for all our success. We’re ready for our next ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’ “

As for changes to Fox staple “American Idol,” Reilly said tweaks were indeed in the works — but that the three judges will remain. And Reilly said he expected an agreement on “Sit Down, Shut Up” shortly that would bring the animated comedy’s writers back to work.

Reilly wouldn’t comment on the specific guild issue that has kept the show dark — writers balked after being told the show would be repped by IATSE, rather than the WGA — but that he expected Mitch Hurwitz to remain at the helm as exec producer. Other scribes will likely depart, he added.

“I’m very hopeful that even by today we will be moving forward with a writing staff and resolve this,” he said.

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