Star producers key L.A. Screenings slate

With the annual TV selling bazaar known as the L.A. Screenings under way at the major studios around town, the continued impact of the recent Writers Guild of America strike is surely being felt in the diminished number of offerings. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a gamechanger or two in the bunch.

Networks looking to land the next “CSI,” “Lost” or “Heroes” should be intrigued to find that creators and executives of those shows are attached to new series up for grabs.

J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of “Lost,” is the driving force behind Warner Bros.’ sci-fi drama “Fringe,” while CBS procedural guru Jerry Bruckheimer brings out his latest drama in “Eleventh Hour” for Warners as well. “Heroes” writer Michael Greene is attached to Ian McShane starrer “Kings” for NBC Universal.

At CBS Paramount, “90210″ tries to recapture the magic of the seminal Aaron Spelling teen series “Beverly Hills, 90210.” David E. Kelley, creator of such longtime hits as “Picket Fences,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Public,” serves up another hourlong to Twentieth with “Life on Mars.”

Sony has one network offering, but it’s notable: the animated “Sit Down, Shut Up” from “Arrested Development” showrunner Mitch Hurwitz. And Disney, though it also doesn’t have as much product as other studios, does have buzzworthy sitcom “Project Gary,” starring Jay Mohr.

“I think we’re in good shape,” says Jeffrey Schlesinger, Warner Bros.’ global TV topper. ” ‘Fringe’ is probably the closest contemporary to ‘The X-Files.’ … We’re really feeling good about that one.”

Sci-fi — as evidenced by “X-Files” and “Lost” — can be a huge draw if able to capture both the hardcore geek and casual viewer. However, as “Surface” and “Threshold” proved in 2005, just because it’s spooky doesn’t mean it’s built to last.

Though very few buyers beside the Canadians and maybe the Brits will actually open their checkbook this week here in the States, everyone’s decision-making process has been made more difficult because there are fewer pilots and more presentations. The script-to-screen pilot process was thrown into flux this year when the WGA strike upset the typical development calendar.

“There’s a huge sense of confusion as to what happens from here,” says Marion Edwards, head of Twentieth’s global TV unit. “The shows that we don’t have pilots for, we’ll have them probably in August. But (normally) the wonderful thing about the Screenings is seeing the shows and using that momentum to generate sales. If you don’t have everything, you wonder if it will have a herky-jerky impact on things.”

Adds Disney global TV topper Ben Pyne: “These Screenings are different in a number of ways, given everything that’s happened this year. But, regardless, it’s always good to spend time with clients.”

“90210,” for instance, has yet to go in front of the cameras. No matter, says CBS Paramount’s Armando Nunez Jr., who runs the international TV division.

“How often do you get to license a spin-off of a show with a history like this one?” Nunez asks. “It’s one of the biggest franchises ever on TV. To reinvent it eight years after it went off the air, it’s obviously very big for us.”

Speaking of memorable series coming back to roost: NBC U is turning the engine over again on “Knight Rider,” which arrives via backdoor pilot. When the telepic performed well on the Peacock last year, network brass ordered up a full series for fall.

“It’s such a well-known brand internationally, and it’s still a classic signature show in our library,” says Belinda Menendez, head of global TV at NBC U, which brings six shows — more than any other studio — that will land primetime spots on broadcast TV. Five arrive in the fall, while a spinoff of “The Office” will find a place on the NBC sked in midseason.

NBC U threw the other studios a curveball by announcing its slate of new shows in April instead of at the traditional May upfront. Canadian outfit CanWest took advantage of the early time frame and, knowing most have a very short window to view and buy programs, bought a handful of Peacock shows before any of its competitors even landed in L.A.

Besides the Canadians, the Brits are also often quick to spend money if they see a program they believe will draw a huge swath of viewers (though some nets will be more wary than others this year). Their strategy: Buy early so as not to get into a bidding war with other Blighty webs.

Jane Tranter of the BBC says her criteria for the Beeb are programs in which storylines jump off the screen. Run-of-the-mill cops, docs or lawyer material doesn’t cut it.

“What you’re looking for can’t be just good. Good isn’t good enough,” she explains. “We would never buy a police or medical series unless it’s genre-busting. … We have to ask what our justification is for buying a show for a British audience.”

Looking south of the U.S. border, Mexico’s top broadcaster Televisa will arrive in town to sell three telenovelas, while rival TV Azteca comes with four telenovelas in hand.

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