TV critics miss network screeners

Marketers struggling to launch frosh campaigns

A little more than a month before the season launches, many of this fall’s new TV series remain shrouded in mystery.

Last-minute pilot reshoots and new series overhauls are causing headaches not only for development execs but also for network marketers, who are scrambling to put together launch campaigns with, in many cases, little material to work with.

TV critics, meanwhile, still haven’t had a chance to catch much of this year’s frosh fare, preventing them from handicapping the fall race and putting together their usual season-preview packages.

“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Newark Star-Ledger scribe Alan Sepinwall. “Because there are so many early September premieres this year, we’re running our fall preview before Labor Day. And I know nothing.”

Of course, the biggest reason for the nets’ delay in sending out their new fare is the lingering hangover from the 100-day writers strike. Pilots are usually completed by the May upfronts — giving marketers plenty of time to plot launch campaigns and critics (who are normally sent screeners in late June, prior to the TV Critics Assn. press tour) ample opportunity to view new series months before premiere week.

But this was an atypical year, with writers going “pencils down” from early November to mid-February — right through the heart of the traditional pilot season. Only CBS completed its pilots before the upfronts, while NBC and CW ordered new series sight unseen. ABC pushed most of its development to the summer, while Fox also spread its pilot process out.

That’s why among the broadcast networks, only CBS was able to deliver pilots to reporters as usual, by mid-June. And even the Eye has yet to send out a full pilot on the frosh drama “Eleventh Hour,” which landed the plum post-“CSI” slot.

Fox screened its new J.J. Abrams thriller “Fringe” and laffer “Do Not Disturb” at the TCA tour. But beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess what new shows like NBC’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” ABC’s “Life on Mars” or the CW’s “90210” even look like.

“It’s a huge problem for me, and I know for a lot of other critics,” said Sacramento Bee critic Rick Kushman, “particularly since no one has even hinted at when we might get them.”

And that lack of info may wind up having an effect on viewers, who may not read as much about new shows leading up to their premieres — and as a result may not be as enthused about and eager to tune into this fall’s new wares.

NBC has the most still up in the air: Even though the Peacock seemingly got a jump on the competish by ordering series in April — a month before everyone else — the network has nothing to show for it yet.

That’s led to plenty of rumor and speculation in recent weeks that the Peacock and/or its execs are in trouble. Net’s made showrunner changes on new skeins like “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Philanthropist,” and with no pilots shot for shows like “Kath & Kim,” NBC has been making significant creative changes on the fly.

Net dismisses those concerns and promised that screeners for its new shows will be mailed out by early September (except “Enemy,” which may not be available until the middle of next month). For now, NBC is offering to send out pilot scripts to journos who need more info now on the shows.

Critics Sepinwall and Kushman said they understand the development delays that came this year because of the WGA strike — but as the weeks go by, it’s getting harder to be fair to the shows they know nothing about.

“It’s next to impossible to plan or write anything useful when we’re working blind like this,” Sepinwall said.

It’s not just the delayed development cycle that’s to blame. With some shows rushed into development pre-strike and others picked up without even a pilot, this summer has seen an unusual number of exec producer shuffles and series fixes.

ABC’s period drama “Life on Mars” underwent an almost complete overhaul from its original pilot, including the departure of original exec producer David E. Kelley, and still isn’t available for viewing; net also hasn’t yet sent out new reality skein “Opportunity Knocks.”

But even after the shows are ready, the Alphabet still doesn’t plan to mail screeners to critics. ABC will instead stream the episodes to reporters via ABC’s publicity website.

An ABC spokesman said eliminating screeners could save the net “hundreds of thousands of dollars in dubbing and shipping costs. It’s an enormous monetary savings.”

What’s more, ABC hasn’t yet shut the door on the last development season, having just screened another batch of pilots early this week. Net is expected to start making more series pickup decisions as soon as the end of this week.

As for the CW, it’s still unclear when tapes of “90210” — one of the most-buzzed new entries heading into fall — will be available; ditto Media Rights Capital’s new slate of Sunday-night CW skeins.

The CW does plan to mail out its other new drama, “Privileged,” to critics next week.

Fox, meanwhile, sent out “Fringe” last night and plans to send “Do Not Disturb” out at the end of August.

With CBS the only network to place screeners in critics’ hands before the critics tour, communications senior VP Chris Ender couldn’t resist crowing on the TCA stage: “We start with CBS, the only network to deliver you a bunch of pilots to watch in advance,” he said to applause.

The lack of screeners was one factor in the TCA’s decision to move its summer event to August next year.

“Half of the press tour was a waste because we hadn’t seen the shows,” Sepinwall said. “I can’t imagine writing a single thing based on any of the panels for NBC’s new shows.”

Kushman said he’ll adjust by writing on as much as he knows and filling in the gaps with information he’s gleaned from the networks.

“We’re at a point where we’re writing descriptions for readers about shows we’ve only talked about,” he said. “But we are also pros, and we can fairly review rough cuts, presentations and shows with cast changes.”

As much as journos are carping, the situation is equally hard on network marketing execs, who have to start promoting shows that are still being shot or retooled. Promos for ABC’s “Life on Mars,” for example, are still using footage from the show’s original Los Angeles-set pilot (the reworked pilot is being filmed in Gotham).

“It’s a big challenge for us,” said Alphabet marketing exec VP Mike Benson. “I’ve never had a situation like this fall where I don’t have a show’s pilot yet. The good part is we’ve got a strong, solid script. We understand the tone and style and where it’s going. But we want to make sure we’re promising something that the show delivers.”

On the plus side, Benson said the late start for “Mars” allowed him to collaborate on a plan early on with the show’s producers.

“As they’re creating the show, we’re creating the campaign,” he said. “As opposed to looking at the show and reacting to it. It’s been much more of a collaboration.”

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