No flight plan for network pilots

In wake of strike, cycles remain out of whack

The writers strike ended more than five months ago, but the hangover persists for TV scribes.

As this year’s preempted pilot season has spilled into summer, distracted and overworked network execs have been slow to shift their focus to development for the 2009-10 season. Under the traditional timetable, studio mavens, scribes and nets would be starting pitch season right about now, taking a flurry of meetings and meal dates and performing other rituals of the script-commissioning period.

But not this year.

Because network creative execs are largely preoccupied with the pilots that got pushed by the strike, which ended in mid-February, there have been fewer hefty put-pilot deals, fewer bidding wars and far fewer script orders at this stage of the game than in recent years.

It boils down to fewer employment opportunities in the foreseeable future for writers, particularly for those entry-level scribes who hope to get lucky with a script that charms its way to a pilot greenlight.

“It feels harder to sell something right now,” says one high-level TV lit rep. “By this point, you’d normally be reading about ridiculous put-pilot deals because things would be selling.”

Adds one studio topper: “It’s definitely not business as usual.”

The larger concern: Have development budgets at the major networks been cut back for good, as angry CEOs vowed during the depths of the Writers Guild of America’s Nov. 5-Feb. 12 work stoppage?

Most of the projects that lingered from the last development cycle are being paid for by funds allocated for 2009-10 development, so by definition the cost-conscious Big Four will spend less on brand-new development in this cycle.

Another post-strike casualty has been the blind-script deal. Whereas nets and studios would in the past make a better-than-average deal with a writer to develop projects, often largely at the scribe’s discretion, the let’s-roll-the-dice-on-this-writer approach has become a luxury that net execs feel they can no longer afford.

What’s more, sellers and agents have been told that development budgets are shrinking — and as the webs look to stretch their dollars, they won’t be making as many hefty deals. Million-dollar penalties appear to have given way to script deals with penalties more in the mid-six-figure range. Just a few big names have landed slightly richer deals.

“People are trying to be aggressive, but within limits,” a studio chief says. “I don’t see the networks stepping up to those kind of penalties with the frequency that they once did. People are trying to make what I’m guessing are smaller development funds last longer.”

All of this lost biz will continue to pinch the earnings of top tenpercenteries, not to mention further tightening the jobs picture for WGA members.

“It just feels very slow,” says a top TV lit agent.

Not all agents and studio execs are expressing doom and gloom. For starters, cablers have never been more hungry for original series — and the stigma of working in basic cable that once scared away top-tier talent is gone.

Granted, the paydays are smaller in cable, the writing staffs are smaller, and even the top outlets for original series don’t make as many script commitments as ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

But there’s a growing consensus in creative circles that the odds are better in developing for cable because execs at the strongest channels have a clear vision of what they want and what kind of shows click on their outlets. There is also no shortage of broadcast net alums who have migrated to cable programming jobs, which means that “the execs really know what they’re doing and they (often) have strong relationships with writers,” one rep says.

Of course, Hollywood being a highly competitive place, the Big Four will still bite when something noteworthy comes along — witness Fox’s recent decision to fast-track Ryan Murphy’s pilot “Glee” and NBC’s put pilot commitment to the John Wells-produced drama “LAPD.”

Still, those are notable exceptions. With the demand down amid general marketplace jitters, a lot of talent reps are holding back on pitches that would normally be made right about now in the hopes that the mood and the showbiz economy improves in due time.

“There’s not the number of pitches in the marketplace as usual,” one studio exec says. “It’s been obviously a challenge for network and studio execs to focus on the beginning of the development process.”

Nowhere are things more unusual than at ABC, which is still in the middle of a full-blown pilot season. Alphabet net continues to shoot pilots and is expected to hold a screening on Aug. 11 with series orders decided by the end of the month.

“It’s an odd year,” ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson said last month. “The rhythms have changed.”

At least one agent expresses concern, however, that the Alphabet net — which already boasts a full plate of decent-performing series — may wind up pushing some skein orders from this current batch of pilots to fall 2009. If that’s the case, their needs will be even more limited.

“How do they launch into the next phase of buying, when they’re making series pickups?” asks one tenpercenter. “It makes sense for them to wait.”

Long term, sellers may have less to worry about. Despite this year’s setup, McPherson has said he’s still keen to return some normalcy to the cycle and perhaps get back to a more traditional year once he moves past this summer’s late pilot season.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a process where you are just going to have randomly pilots throughout the year,” he said at that time. “I think you still have to target certain times of the year.”

Where ABC is distracted by new pilots, NBC has been focused on production of its previously announced new fall programs. (Ditto the CW, which is still sculpting its big hope for 2008-09, the return of “90210.”)

Peacock made the decision to pick up a number of shows to series early in the spring without producing a pilot first. Now NBC finds itself having to rework a fair number of the new shows on its announced fall sked, including two of its most-touted, the comedy “Kath and Kim” and drama “My Own Worst Enemy.” Once again, that means less time and money for developing brand-new fare.

Indeed, the fact that NBC did not screen any completed episodes of its new shows during the summer Television Critics Assn. press tour last month stirred up much speculation about problems behind the scenes on its new shows, which also include the revival of “Knight Rider” and the Ian McShane starrer “Kings.”

NBC brass have said they’re committed to sticking with the early straight-to-series ordering pattern (in most, but not all, cases) that it established amid the strike turmoil earlier this year. But agents and studio execs say there is a lot of reticence about the Peacock’s all-or-nothing approach.

“If you don’t bring them a project with a lot of shiny elements attached (e.g. a star or a marquee helmer), it’s hard to get any commitment there,” groused a seasoned TV packaging agent. “It’s been a weird process.”

Over at Fox, entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly is keen to turn the strike-smacked schedule into more of a lasting change. Reilly told reporters last month that he’s splitting the net’s pilot season into two — with pilot orders in the fall and in the spring — which makes juggling pilot production with development pitches the new norm there.

“(The strike) was an opportunity to finally force the hand of something that we were trying to evolve toward anyway,” Reilly said then.

CBS was the one member of the Big Four that managed to return to business as usual shortly after the end of the strike. Eye raced to finish the bulk of its pilots before the May upfronts. It only had a small handful of dangling projects (most notably the Glenn Gordon Caron dramedy “Meant to Be’s,” which lensed right after
Memorial Day).

That means at least CBS will be making greenlights, casting pilots and ordering series within the time frame that everyone’s accustomed to. Whether its rivals will be back to that schedule by next spring remains to be seen.

“There was a lot of blabber about (the networks changing their models), and we’ll see who follows through on it,” Reilly said in July. “I think it would be interesting to just see who really puts their money where their mouth is on year-round and what that ultimately means.”

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