TV networks lighten comedy load

Pilot season is feeling the economy’s pain in more ways than one.

The mandate at the networks and studios this year is to cut costs by any means necessary — from slashing above-the-line salaries to shooting far from Hollywood to secure tax breaks — and to generally deliver as much or more than in past years but with smaller budgets.

The sharp downturn in the nation’s economic fortunes also is directly influencing the premises of a number of projects for the 2009-10 season, particularly on the comedy side.

“Last development season was impacted by the WGA strike,” said one high-level agent. “This development season, we’ve been hit by the economic strike.”

Indeed, if the strike last year gave network and studio execs a reason to scrutinize how much they spend on pilots, the recession forced them to do something about it this year.

Twentieth Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman said the entire industry has been given a “wake-up call.”

“We had an incredible growth cycle — fueled by ad revenue, DVD sales and international markets — that has now changed course,” Newman said. “Now we’re being forced to be much more economical and thoughtful in the way we produce our shows.”

The belt-tightening has resulted in more inhouse productions at the nets, a rise in lower-cost presentation reels rather than full-blown pilots and a willingness to cut pilots loose quickly if a star or director can’t be found. The overall number of projects, which stands now at around 70, is down (though not dramatically) from 82 in 2007; last year’s strike-disrupted pilot season would not make for a fair comparison.

Even NBC, which last year declared it would cut way back on pilots in favor of going straight to series on a year-round basis, has 10 pilots or presentations cooking.

At the same time, everyone’s waiting to see if a slew of pilots go away altogether, as the nets decide to save money by trimming rosters.

Already, ABC and CBS cut a handful of pilots that were still missing key elements. ABC pushed the comedy pilot “Funny in Farsi” because it couldn’t find a director. The Alphabet’s laffer “Planet Lucy” and CBS’ drama “Confessions of a Contractor” were put on hold because of casting difficulties. More projects are expected to fall by the wayside this week.

“Everything’s shrinking — ratings are down, earnings are down, a lot of people are nervous,” one agent said.

Matt Cherniss, exec veep of programming at Fox Broadcasting, said the net may look to surround marquee stars with a supporting cast of more economical unknown thesps.

“In past seasons, it was very easy to get caught up in the mania of pilot season,” he said. “Now, in this environment, you have to be very discerning with not just who you cast or where you decide to shoot but which pilots you make, too.”

Sony Pictures TV toppers Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg said they feel internal pressure now to make “smarter deals.”

“It relates to where we shoot shows — are there tax credits to be had?” Van Amburg said. “And what do actor deals look like? The age of guarantees and penalties and massive fees needs to come more in line with what the economics of the business are.”

Among the congloms, some, like CBS, have imposed an across-the-board mandate to trim salaries and budgets. Others are slimming budgets on a show-by-show basis.

Reps are particularly concerned about falling salaries, noting that the studios possess most of the leverage. As a result, meanwhile, talent has been asked in many cases to accept smaller salaries than they might have received a year or two ago.

“Quotes were inflated in a time of a healthy economy,” said 20th Century Fox TV chair Dana Walden. “That’s not the reality now.”

And with so many pilots hunting for talent at the same time — the kind of bottleneck that programmers have railed against for years — there’s still an opportunity for top-tier talent to cash in.

“If they want you bad enough, they’ll pay your quotes,” an agent said. “But a lot of actors and writers will make deals because they have to.”

Newman said pilot producers now have to choose their priorities. If a pricey star is available, then something else will have to be cut.

“Where do you put your money? Is it in the cast? The special effects? The locations?” Newman asked. “A few years ago, you aggressively pursued every aspect of these pilots to their full extent. Those days are over.”

Beyond talent, studios and nets are also looking at areas such as cutting production hours in order to avoid paying crew overtime.

“On some shows, our deal with the producers and directors is it’s an 11-hour day and that’s it,” Newman said.

Studios and nets are also looking at how things are shot — such as whether building sets is necessary — and pulling back on licensed music, which can get expensive fast.

The studios also are paying more attention to whether a show has a market outside the U.S.

Erlicht said Sony Pictures TV now regularly looks to its international sales team before shooting a pilot.

“It makes it much easier when they nod up and down wildly that they’re enthusiastic about elements they know they can sell,” he said.

Creatively, the major networks seem to be casting a wide net, probably because the public’s mood shifted as development season was under way. As it became more apparent that the nation was in worse economic shape than anyone thought, net execs suddenly began thinking “comfort food.”

And there is definitely a movement toward shows with a blue-collar perspective, or stories of the formerly rich having to make do after a big fall, e.g., the Kelsey Grammer laffer at ABC, “Pryors.” The Alphabet also has the comedy pilot “Canned,” about a group of young friends who all get pinkslips on the same day. Fox is buzzing about Mike Binder’s “Two Dollar Beer,” about a group of decidedly lowbrow, working-class guys in Detroit.

Cost concerns also have fueled a resurgence of multicamera comedies. Multicam, which had fallen so out of favor as the epitome of the well-worn sitcom format, is far less expensive than single-camera fare. And CBS’ success with multicam laffers “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” has only fueled the momentum.

Furthering the confusion over what to develop were this year’s mixed Nielsen results. The best-performing newbies, such as CBS’ “The Mentalist” and Fox’s “Fringe,” appeal very specifically to those networks’ audiences. So webheads don’t have much to lean on this development cycle.

Despite the myriad challenges, Walden said she’s feeling optimistic about this development season.

“I feel like the best scripts won orders this year,” she said. “In trying financial times, people didn’t take as many shots in development as they normally would have. The networks were discerning about the projects they bought, especially from outside companies. The fittest survived this year.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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