Marquee projects have advantage at networks

For months, network and studio execs have been scrambling to work around the disruptions caused by the writers strike and keep their operations functioning as normally as possible under the circumstances.

Now that things are expected to actually get back to business as usual in Hollywood, with scribes poised to lay down their picket signs and dust off their laptops this week, nets and studios are doing a different kind of scramble. The biggest post-strike challenge Big Four networks face is deciding how to jumpstart development projects for the 2008-09 season that have been in a deep-freeze for the past three months.

The only certainty is that 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 to 25 pilots for ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) ready to roll.

Top brass, 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.

That may come to pass — or not — but the more immediate concern for webheads is what development bets to place in this discombobulated season that has been on pause since the strike began Nov. 5.

In anticipation of the labor strife, the major nets did make a concerted effort to accelerate pilot orders last summer and in early fall in the hopes of getting some hot prospects in the can before the Writers Guild of America contract expired Oct. 31. But those early birds still amount to a small portion of the development smorgasbord net execs are accustomed to.

“Most people were just turning in their (pilot) scripts when they went out,” says a veteran studio exec. “If something didn’t come in just right, there’s no time to develop it or polish it.”

Of all the nets, NBC appears to have the highest volume of development in advanced stages, reflecting the urgency at the Peacock for new scripted tentpoles and the fact the network and Universal Media Studio arm underwent a massive regime change last year. Peacock is even dipping back into its Brandon Tartikoff glory days with hopes for a revival of the kitschy talking-car actioner “Knight Rider.”

Net execs are also making a lot of noise these days about breaking with tradition by developing shows throughout the year and launching them when they’re ripe, rather than in the traditional fall and midseason premiere frames. But there’s still an urgency to have some new material ready to show off to the advertising community by mid-May when media buyers book their advance advertising commitments for the upcoming season.

The Big Four webs have already done a significant amount of winnowing their choices by releasing scripts and force-majeuring overall term deals of creative talent that under normal circumstances would have been engaged in pilot development.

In the past few weeks, CBS and NBC have also turned to their neighbor to the north to solve the problem of getting fresh material for their reality- and rerun-laden primetime lineups. CBS cut a joint licensing deal with Canada’s CTV for 13 segs of the new drama “Flashpoint”; the Peacock did the same with CTV drama “The Listener” (see story, page 28).

As always, the development greenlights given by the Big Four during the next few weeks will hinge on each network’s particular needs.

Given the time constraints, industry insiders predict that some nets will opt to order more presentation reels, or a collection of scenes that give the flavor of a project, rather than full-blown pilots. With fewer swings at the bat this year, there will also be even greater emphasis than usual on projects with A-list talent on board, insiders predict.

ABC has more than its share of successful hourlong skeins these days — including three promising freshman from this season of discontent: the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice”; the Golden Globe-winning “Pushing Daisies” and “Dirty Sexy Money.” So it’s no surprise that two projects that have retained some heat at the Alphabet are half-hour laffers.

“Literary Superstar” is a comedy from Sony Pictures TV and producer Darren Star, with Jenna Elfman attached to play a book publicist who is fiercely loyal to her clients. It sounds like a potential companion for ABC’s other freshman success story of the season, Christina Applegate starrer “Samantha Who.”

ABC and ABC Studios got a bit of a head start last fall in shooting some parts of a domestic comedy starring Cedric the Entertainer as a man who struggles to adapt when his wife suddenly becomes the owner of a multimillion dollar business.

CBS is believed to have its eye on moving swiftly on a pair of drama pilots and a pair of comedies that were targeted for early development last year.

“Eleventh Hour” is a drama from the Jerry Bruckheimer shop that’s billed as “The X-Files” meets “An Inconvenient Truth,” or what happens when the government recruits a college professor to investigate mysterious events involving science, from cloning to global warming. Warner Bros. TV project, penned by Mick Jackson, is based on a British thriller.

“Meant-to-Bes” has been a high priority project for Glenn Gordon Caron and CBS Paramount Network TV ever since the producer reupped his overall deal with the studio last fall. They’ve been stingy with details other than to call it a drama with a romance angle.

CBS last summer gave an early greenlight to drama pilot “Kingdom,” from Chad Hodge and Barry Sonnenfeld. At present, the Eye is not expected to scurry to get that ambitious project on its feet, though it remains a high-profile piece for the network.

Comedy-wise, CBS is said to like “My Best Friend’s Girl,” from Sony Pictures TV and scribe Mike Sikowitz (“Friends”). The laughs revolve around how a friendship between two guys changes when one begins dating the other’s ex-wife.

“Worst Week Ever” is another British adaptation, this time handled by Matt Tarses (“Scrubs”). The Universal Media Studios production follows a young couple as they try to navigate the politics of their in-laws.

Fox is on a supernatural high with two reality-bending dramas virtually in the can. Twentieth Century Fox TV’s “The Oaks,” from scribe David Schulner and exec producer Shawn Ryan, follows three couples who lived in the same house in different eras: 1967, 1987 and 2007. It was shot right as the strike began in early November.

“Fringe,” J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated new TV endeavor, is lensing now. The Warner Bros. TV project, co-written by Abrams and his frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, revolves around a femme FBI agent who confronts paranormal activity and tries to stop the spread of unexplained phenomena.

Net is also high on drama “The FBI,” the Imagine TV project that’s being produced with the full cooperation of the governmental agency.

Two other dramas likely to get priority treatment from Fox, if the scripts can be wrangled in the next few weeks, are “Queen Bee,” from 20th and “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy; and the reunion of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku in “Dollhouse,” also for 20th.

NBC, the most vocal of the nets about upending its traditional development cycle, has a fair amount of product already in play.

Last week, the Peacock made good on NBC U chief Zucker’s vow to sidestep the pilot process altogether on some projects by giving a six-seg order to the Universal Media Studios comedy “Kath and Kim.” Laffer, starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair, is based on an Australian series about a forty-ish mother and her self-absorbed daughter.

Peacock has a handful of half-hours from Universal Media Studios that are on the priority list for quickly getting into shooting shape. Some may get the straight-to-series treatment under the new development doctrine at NBC U. “Man of Your Dreams” hails from Conan O’Brien’s Conaco shingle and has director Sonnenfeld onboard. “Zip” has thesp Steven Weber attached, while actor John Michael Higgins has been cast in another Brit remake, “Father Ted.”

Peacock gave a 13-episode order to Lionsgate last fall for horror anthology series “Fear Itself.” And Universal Media Studios pacted with British production shingle Power on the overseas production of drama “Robinson Crusoe.

Twentieth Century Fox TV’s “Blue Blood,” an ensemble drama about a rookie NYPD officer has already been shot. The project from scribe Neil Tolkin and Brett Ratner began its life at Fox in 2006.

“The Philanthropist,” a drama about a rebel billionaire from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, earned a series greenlight five weeks before the strike began.

Also for NBC is legal thriller “All Rise” from scribe Luke Reiter and helmer Sonnenfeld, which was shot prior to the strike.

In addition to accelerating the script-to-series process, NBC is said to be leaning toward backdoor pilots on the drama side that can run as telepics, if nothing else. NBC U programming and production execs are known to be scouring the Universal pic and TV vault for properties with revival potential, a la “Bionic Woman” and the upcoming “Knight Rider.”

Jamie Sommers didn’t kick much Nielsen butt in her return to primetime last fall, but a chatty automotive superhero may be just the tonic for NBC in these gadget- and gizmo-obsessed times.

Hey, it worked for Tartikoff.

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