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Pilots benefit from flexible schedules

Retooling means no summer break for series

The schedules are set, the upfront advertising market is closed and summer series have started to launch — yet pilot season drags on.

In this most unusual of TV years, execs normally accustomed to taking a June breather are instead involved in a juggling act.

For starters, pilots are still being cast and shot — a function largely of the writers’ strike, which delayed development for several months. Then there’s the threat of a second strike, this time via SAG, giving nets and studios a good reason to resume production on returning shows earlier than usual (instead of their normal late-July/early-August start times).

Pile on top of that the fact that several already-scheduled shows either need to be retooled (ABC’s “Life on Mars”) or were never tooled to begin with (shows greenlit sans pilot, like NBC’s “Kath & Kim” and CW’s “90210”).

Besides all that, this is normally the time when new pitches are starting to be entertained for the following season.

No wonder Hollywood restaurants seem surprisingly empty this month.

“Certainly I’ve never had a June quite like this one,” says Universal Media Studios prexy Katherine Pope. “It’s just a crazy period right now.”

Network chiefs’ desire to do more year-round development had already amplified their summer workloads over the past few years, but this year’s writers’ strike accelerated those plans.

The increased labor isn’t the only noticeable difference with this year’s shifted pilot season.

The delay also means international buyers at the L.A. Screenings came away grumbling that there wasn’t much tape to base their purchases on. And TV critics accustomed to seeing pilots this time of year will head to the summer press tour with little idea of what the nets have in store.

Each network treated the disruption differently. CBS raced to pilot as many shows as possible by the traditional May upfront period, NBC ordered series without pilots, and Fox continued its year-round philosophy by keeping pilot orders for fall shows to a minimum.

In the case of ABC, the net decided not to rush this year’s development, and didn’t shoot most of its pilots by the May upfront presentations. As a result, it is by far the busiest of the nets this month.

It’s almost as if it’s still springtime at the Alphabet web, with pilot casting still in process and shooting just starting to commence.

“Instead of staffing and going on safari, I’m completely embroiled in pilot season,” says ABC comedy head Samie Kim. “I keep feeling like it’s March, but it’s June.”

The net doesn’t plan to screen its pilots until August, and won’t make firm pickup decisions until the start of fall. Conceivably, that means the net could even gauge its orders on its early fall performance and resulting needs.

The altered timetable has other benefits too. At Universal, studio execs were able to more easily work around Christian Slater’s schedule in order to cast him in “My Own Worst Enemy.”

“Had we had to shoot a pilot in the traditional pilot season, he would have not been available,” Pope says. “Normally it would have been, ‘He’s got a feature film; he’s not available.’ The same thing happened with Ian McShane in ‘Kings.’ Because we had more flexibility when we shot that, we were able to get him, and now he’s shooting a movie in England.”

Over at ABC, if comedy pilot “Roman’s Empire” had been shot in the spring per custom, Kelsey Grammer wouldn’t have been available. But once it was clear that Fox had canceled “Back to You,” Grammer was a free agent — allowing the Alphabet net to cast him on the laffer.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to rush and have things ready for May,” Kim says. “The quality of what we’re doing would have suffered.”

It’s still unclear how much ABC will actually pick up, or how big its series needs will be come midseason. But the net has plenty of contenders in the works: Beyond “Roman’s Empire,” other Alphabet pilots include the Tommy Schlamme-helmed “Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas,” the remake of “Cupid,” the comedy “Good Behavior,” the Damon Wayans starrer “Never Better” and the police dramedy “The Unusuals.”

Pilots still in the works at other nets include Fox’s Ron Moore space drama “Virtuality” and comedy “Boldly Going Nowhere,” from the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” guys. And CBS still has the Glenn Gordon Caron entry “The Meant to Be’s.”

Most recently, Fox picked up an hourlong comedy pilot set to star Wilmer Valderrama. The show could be targeted for this upcoming midseason, or even for the fall of ’09. As a sign of the times, Fox comedy chief Susan Levison says her network doesn’t distinguish between TV seasons anymore.

“We’re trying to free ourselves from that mentality and just consider things as they come in,” Levison says. “We’re going on the assumption that if it’s a great piece of material, we’ll find a place for it.”

For Barry Jossen, who heads production at ABC Studios, the unusual confluence of productions has posed a unique challenge.

“For the first time ever, from March 1 through today, we’ve been simultaneously producing pilots while also restarting series production for series that had just ended, while also planning series production for next season’s early start shows,” Jossen says. “It was a nearly impossible situation, but sheer force of will and filmmaking ingenuity allowed us to overcome. It’s taking a lot of sweat and effort.”

Of course, it could all come to a screeching halt should SAG call an actors’ strike. Shooting continues on returning skeins as the nets and studios attempt to bank as many episodes as possible before a shutdown. But as the SAG contract deadline approaches, studio chiefs are beginning to wonder whether they should hold off on pilot production in July.

“We’re still making pilots, but you have to be very cautious,” one studio topper says. “You could spend a million bucks prepping a pilot, then decide you can’t afford to shoot because of a potential work stoppage. So we’re being very cautious on those.”

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