With frosh class falling flat, nets go high-concept for 2011

Can Wonder Woman save primetime?

David E. Kelley’s new take on the comic-book heroine can’t come soon enough for the networks, which could have really used some of the character’s prowess and prominence this season.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: This fall has turned into an underwhelming muddle for the networks, as no new breakout hits have emerged and a few shows were so lightly sampled in their premiere that the cancellation clock started ticking immediately.

But have no fear, citizens of Earth — or at least, the TV industry portion of it. Help may be on the way, in the form of giant, genre-busting hourlong projects making their way through the development machine.

This fall was ho-hum, so the networks have more reason to think high-impact for 2011 — and the splashy projects in the works at least figure to get auds’ attention.

Already, a bustling crop of high-profile, big-ticket projects from the likes of J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Ryan Murphy, Josh Schwartz and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are lined up at the networks during this development season.

Projects on deck include Fox’s prehistoric/time-travel drama “Terra Nova,” an epic series from Spielberg, Peter Chernin and company already on tap for fall 2011. Fox is also developing a new take on “Alcatraz” from Abrams’ Bad Robot label, as well as a take on the graphic novel “Locke and Key” from DreamWorks TV and Kurtzman and Orci.

At ABC, the network has the Amazon-set “The River” from DreamWorks and Oren Peli, as well as a period piece set against the backdrop of Pan Am Airways in the 1960s. NBC has “Mars Direct,” about a mission to the red planet, and McG’s “Zombies vs. Vampires.”

Think tentpole-style programming with big pricetags. It’s probably no coincidence that several of those producers have their feet in the feature film world as well, and know a thing or two about opening-weekend mentality.

For big names like those, a network sale is almost a given on anything they take out.

“They’re all multitasking in an incredible way, but all of them come back to TV because it’s a more satisfying storytelling medium,” 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden says. “And it’s a much bigger business opportunity, as they’re all significant profit participants on shows created by them or under their banners.”

All proven creative forces known for generating rabid fan bases, those producers (and others) have multiple projects in the hopper at the networks.

“I know we’re all out there feeling that big ideas and big auspices are always helpful to cut through the clutter,” says Laura Lancaster, NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios drama exec VP. “And there were certain places that we watched, like J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot or Josh Schwartz’s Fake Empire, that appeared to be very productive this development season.”

Net and studio execs are gravitating toward these projects as they also, in some cases, up their development budgets. NBC, for one, has announced plans to spend more money on projects. And event-level series from well-known names also help goose global sales, which in turn can cover these shows’ bigger budgets.

Plus, because development season is lingering later this year, it’s allowing execs, scribes and producers time to examine what’s working this fall and to adjust accordingly (for better or for worse).

Execs also have been anxious to land familiar franchises — including “Wonder Woman,” which Kelley is adapting for Warner Bros. TV (which hasn’t yet brought it to the networks); as well as new takes on “The Munsters” at NBC and “Charlie’s Angels” at ABC. Peacock is also taking a second stab at developing “The Rockford Files” and “Prime Suspect.”

Several movie adaptations are also in the works, as ABC tackles “True Lies” and “The Prince of Tides,” while Fox looks at a TV version of Will Smith’s “Hitch.”

Projects generally don’t come attached with stars this early on, but when they do, it’s another entry point to a quick sale. NBC couldn’t resist making an aggressive play for an untitled J.J. Abrams drama starring “Lost” alums Michael Emerson and Terry Quinn, as well as Josh Schwartz’s “Ghost Angeles,” starring former “The OC” star Rachel Bilson.

“Those two projects were undeniable,” says NBC’s Lancaster. “When Terry and Michael came in, to see their chemistry, we knew it was something special. And as for Rachel, she came in and she was just adorable.”

The nets and studios are also mining literary and web adaptations like never before, ordering a flurry of scripts based on already published source material. ABC, for example, has lined up projects centered around the books “Awkward Family Photos,” “Courtroom 302,” “Patient Zero,” “The Lost Girls” and “Good Christian Bitches.”

CBS has “The True Adventures of a Terrible Dater,” while Fox has “Council of Dads.” NBC is adapting “Dirty Girls Social Club,” “Legends,” “87th Precinct,” “My Life as an Experiment” and “Weekends at Bellevue.”

“No one is above looking to the literary world or the playwright community for original, excellent material,” Walden says.

On the flipside, the number of adaptations from international formats has gone way down. ABC is working with “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara on adapting the Spanish series “I Hate This Place” as a comedy — but that’s about it.

“International is not a bottomless pit,” Walden says. “It feels like the ones that can be appropriately reconceived for the American marketplace have been done. There have been so many.”

It’s still too soon to tell how fall 2011 will shake out. Many of the high-profile projects may not go the distance, or network execs may formulate an entirely different strategy in May, when it comes time to set the fall sked.

The networks themselves are still figuring out their strategy after the failure to find a breakout hit so far this year. Network execs find themselves running back and forth between genres, wondering whether viewers are eager to watch more lighthearted, easy-to-digest fare like USA’s stable of dramas, or if event-sized megadramas are the way to bring in auds.

“The thing I see happening is that people really do want to escape more than ever, and oftentimes I feel like that’s in the world of comedy,” Lancaster says. “The hourlongs with comedy seem to be doing well — but hourlong comedies come with the highest degree of difficulty. Many of us are really seeking to crack that space.”

There’s a void in the marketplace for projects that aim for a much grander scale than your average hourlong, Walden notes.

“The fact is, there is no more ‘Lost’ or ’24,’” Walden says. “Those big-idea series had very loyal followings and provided networks with a huge promotional platform.”

It’s not for lack of trying, as the nets and studios have struggled to find logical successors but keep coming up short. ABC’s “Flashforward,” “The Nine” and “Invasion,” NBC’s “Surface” (and perhaps “The Event,” which is on a downward slide) all tried to capture that “Lost” mojo, to no avail.

Remakes, meanwhile, are a gamble — witness NBC’s “The Bionic Woman” and ABC’s “Eastwick” flameouts. But a familiar title’s brand recognition can at least bring in sampling. When done right — and this year’s CBS “Hawaii Five-0″ redux appears to be heading in that direction — viewers will stay.

The odds may be more in the nets’ favor next year, given the sheer number of high-concept projects in development for 2011. And the stage is set for change at the networks: ABC and NBC are in dire need of new hits, which may spur some necessary risk-taking. On the flipside, CBS is stable enough that it only needs one or two new dramas — and can afford to do something a little more untraditional.

“You have to be either really desperate or really solid to take a big swing,” says one exec.

This season’s new series have elicited mostly yawns from the primetime audience. The networks have brought on some middle-of-the-road performers (like “Hawaii Five-0″ and “Raising Hope,” which landed a back-nine pickup last week), but the freshman crop has been devoid of standouts.

“This was collectively probably the most conservative lineup of new network shows I can remember,” one top network exec says.

Some execs chalk that up to a fairly uninspiring mix of new cop and legal hours, while Walden says the lack of a breakout hit “shines a light on the huge degree of difficulty in getting it exactly right. Trying to find something that’s executed perfectly and with an idea that breaks out and characters that connect in a meaningful way is very hard,” she says.

While many of this year’s highly touted new entries — think “Lone Star” and “My Generation” — came with complex set-ups that viewers had a hard time grasping, the shows that have worked so far (specifically, “Hawaii Five-0″) were much easier sells.

In a crowded primetime environment just getting auds to show up is a feat. The lesson: If viewers don’t grasp a show’s concept and fail to show up in the first place, you’re toast.

But even if they do sample the series opener, the show has to have quality to keep them there.

Walden says the industry needs to take a breath and remind itself that game-changing, breakout hits don’t come every year. There was “Glee” and “Modern Family” last year; “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” in 2004 and “Friends” and “ER” in 1994. But some fall rollouts just aren’t as exciting as others.

“It was a somewhat unique season last year that two shows so aggressively broke out of the pack,” Walden says. “It shines a light on the huge degree of difficulty in getting it exactly right. Trying to find something that’s executed perfectly and with an idea that breaks out and characters that connect in a meaningful way is very hard.”

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