Writers must pilot in new climate

TV scribes will return to an environment vastly different from the one that existed in October.

As work resumes this week, networks and production companies will scramble to ramp up business as almost usual. Thanks to the three-month-plus work stoppage, they will effect radical changes in the pilot season, upfront presentations and production for the remainder of this season.

There are also decisions to be made on whether overall deals that were axed by force majeure provisions last month should be restored. The WGA’s new contract is expected to include a provision that calls for scribes who were force majeured on ongoing shows to be reinstated to their old gigs, though insiders cautioned that the specifics are still being hammered out by guild and studio lawyers.

All of this upheaval may not be a bad thing. Several execs said they’re excited about the opportunity to finally change the way they do business. Others, however, believe old habits die hard.

“Some people are willing to say we’re reimagining the way we create shows in Hollywood and finance them,” one exec said. “For other people, this has just been a blip.”

Work is resuming, but the production timetable also depends greatly on how prepared showrunners and scribes are when they return to their dusty offices.

n One of the first skeins back on the air will likely be NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” probably on Feb. 23.

n Most ratings powerhouses — like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” NBC’ “The Office” and CBS’ “CSI” and “Two and a Half Men” — will likely be back on the air by the end of March. They’ll probably produce four to eight episodes for broadcast this season.

n One exec close to “The Office” believes viewers could start seeing new episodes in five weeks. Dramas would probably take longer — around eight weeks for a show like “Ugly Betty” — limiting how many episodes can actually air.

n Most bubble shows, like CBS’ “Cane” and “Shark,” won’t return this season, even if they’ve been given a back nine order. Studios aren’t eager to spend a fortune relaunching production for just three or four episodes on low-rated skeins unless networks guarantee the show will be back next year.

n Even new segs of several solid-performing shows won’t start flowing again until the fall. That’s because, particularly in the case of serialized skeins (like NBC’s “Heroes” and Fox’s “24″) or frosh shows that are still finding their footing (e.g., ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” and NBC’s “Chuck”), webheads don’t see the logic in airing just a few episodes before the season ends in May.

“The audience is confused right now,” one exec said. “Why put on three originals now, then take off the summer, and then come back again? You’d rather take those episodes and add them to next season and have more original episodes to air then.”

One thing’s certain: Pilot season ’08 will be nothing like the traditional breakneck process of casting, prepping, lensing and round-the-clock post-production work broadcast networks and major studios endure in the late winter and spring. They simply don’t have the time, and they don’t have the usual volume of material (20-25 pilots for ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) ready to roll.

Some nets already have projects in production (Fox’s “The Oaks” and “Fringe” among them). Other pilots will be picked up based on how close those scripts are to being ready. Beyond that, some development will be pushed to midseason, other projects to the following fall, and some will just go away.

Even as they ramp up existing projects, the networks’ biggest post-strike challenge is deciding how to jumpstart development projects for the 2008-09 season, almost all of which have been in a deep freeze for the past three months. Webheads are pondering which development bets to place.

Nets are also mulling the idea of airing firstrun scripted shows in the early summer, with some wondering if it may make sense to ask Nielsen to extend the official 2007-08 race through part of June.

Some nets, particularly the CW, may be ready to use the strike as a means of testing out the notion of airing original scripted fare in the summer. “Gossip Girl,” for example, is likely to begin airing new segs in the spring — and then stay in originals through a big chunk of the summer. CW execs worry their younger viewers might permanently defect if they’re not fed a diet of originals as soon as possible.

One thing hasn’t changed: Fox, which already streamlined its upfront presentation down to a fast-moving hourlong showcase last year, will keep the date and do the same again this year.

Coming off such a disjointed year, other networks are already planning on a low-key upfront season as well. NBC is mulling nixing its presentation altogether (Daily Variety, Jan. 22), while an exec inside ABC said the Alphabet plans a much simpler affair, fearing that anything larger would appear tacky in light of the industry’s recent labor strife. (One possibility: a bare-bones presentation much like the pre-upfront affairs.)

Another worry for some nets: The possibility of a SAG strike this summer. While a WGA deal would seem to make such a work stoppage unlikely, wary webheads aren’t so sure. Some think it may make sense to stockpile as many episodes as possible for the fall — just in case.

There’s also a heightened sense of anxiety in network circles that even when current series return to the air, auds could be slow to be wooed back.

“The ratings aren’t going to be what they were,” one network exec predicted. “I think we’ll get there. But it’s going to take a while to get blood flowing through the veins.”

Top brass at the congloms, most notably NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker, have made a point of proclaiming this production interruptus as a watershed moment for the biz, offering the chance for broadcasters to finally end the inefficient madness of pilot season.

“The networks just completely skipped the traditional October-to-March period in which everyone looks at scripts and then greenlights pilots,” said one TV exec, who cheered the idea of tossing out the old development rule book.

With so much downtime during the strike, some may have quietly mapped out how they think the rest of their show’s season should go and will be able to churn out scripts in no time.

“They’re expecting us to be ready with our dancing shoes on,” one producer said.

It helps that nets have filled gaps in their skeds with successful reality skeins.

Execs are wondering whether scribes have been quietly writing their pilot scripts during the strike (in violation of strike rules) — or, at least, outlining things in order to quickly pound one out after the “all clear” sign.

“Certain people wrote,” said one shingle topper. “They’re going to be delivering pilot scripts this week, or whenever they’re allowed to. You may see some mid-to-lower-level writers seeing an opportunity in more quickly handing their scripts in.”

Nothing is a certainty. “Thanks for thinking I have a clue,” said one exec producer, after being asked what happens next to his series and multiple development projects. “But I don’t.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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