Pilot season getting mojo back

But nets, studios still face tough economic realities

There’s reason for (some) joy in pilotville this winter.

As they finish their pilot pickups and casting, network and studio execs say they’re more optimistic about the state of the broadcast biz than at this time last year, when the effects of a down economy — and NBC’s decision to replace five hours of primetime with Jay Leno — cast a pall over pilot season.

This time around, they’ve got several reasons to be more upbeat: for starters, an improving ad market; the success of new shows like “Modern Family”; and ratings bumps for major events like the Super Bowl, the Golden Globe Awards and the Olympics.

Also, now that NBC has reversed course and freed up those five Leno hours, that should mean a few more scripted hours on the air next fall. And across the nets, a string of high-profile producers — from Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams to Shawn Ryan and Chuck Lorre — have come up with new primetime contenders.

“The business is very strong,” one studio exec gushed.

But all of this good news is still tempered by some pretty harsh economic truths. Costs continue to escalate as big-budget, high-concept projects with ensemble casts dominate this year’s pilot orders. Yet networks are still attempting to hold the line on license fees, which they aggressively policed last year, and studios are anxious to keep production costs down.

Several issues are at play this pilot season:

  • Runaway production is real, as the studios are again sending most of their hourlong pilots outside California.

    “There are so many pilots being shot out of town, and series will be as well,” one studio chief said. “That’s just a shame. It’s not a creative choice; it’s a business choice. I feel badly for that workforce in California… It’s a big difference, however, when you’re looking at a million-dollar tax credit.”

  • An unsettled international marketplace is making network and studio execs nervous.

    “While the studios have for years been able to offset much of their deficit through international, are we going to see the beginning of a decline there?” asked one exec. “Both because of the economy and the competition, not to mention exchange rate issues.”

  • The networks’ inhouse studios, particularly at NBC, CBS and ABC, are truly inhouse.

    Among Universal Media Studios, CBS TV Studios and ABC Studios, just one pilot — ABC Studios’ “This Little Piggy,” set up at NBC — is for an outside network.

    ABC also co-produces the “Criminal Minds” spinoff, but that’s a preexisting property. 20th, meanwhile, is now the only in-house studio not operated under the same oversight as its network sibling. That’s allowed 20th to get a few more pilots at other nets besides Fox.

    As the network-aligned studios have focused on their own broadcast sibling, that’s allowed Warner Bros. TV and Sony Pictures TV to land a healthy number of pilots at all four major nets. After all, no net wants to be on the fence to finance their entire development slate, given the failure rate for most pilots.

  • Studios producing for non-aligned networks were more aggressive this year in negotiating their license fees upfront.

    That’s generally standard practice, but given the still-uncertain economy, it’s more important than ever for studios this year. Studio chiefs know that they might not get a big windfall in getting the deal done early, but at least they won’t wind up getting hammered in an eleventh-hour negotiation on the eve of a net’s upfront presentation.

    Rather than wait until the upfronts, when they might be forced to accept whatever terms the network offers, studios with any amount of leverage were able in many cases to land early on a license fee they could live with. CBS is generally considered the toughest negotiator, as it holds the most rigid line on license fee bumps, insiders said.

    But the studios also saw nets open up the pocketbooks for those big-name producers, as there was still plenty of competitive bidding — particularly on spec scripts (from the likes of David E. Kelley, J.J. Abrams and Carter Bays/Craig Thomas).

    The real battles won’t surface until May — when the nets make a decision on their bubble shows. Like last year, network execs are likely to play hardball and force down license fees in exchange for picking a show up. And in some cases, studios may decide the financials don’t make sense — and will not accept those offers.

  • Ensemble casts are hot, but this trend comes at a high price.

    “If you’ve got four or five twentysomethings on a show, those people don’t come cheap,” one exec said.

    Call it the “Modern Family” effect. That sitcom is bursting at the seams with cast members, but that’s also considered one of the reasons the show is working so well.

    “We’re dealing with A.D.D. audiences now,” an exec said, noting that more cast members allows for more storylines and action in an episode. “Especially young people used to Internet short-form content and short bursts on reality shows.”

  • At the same time, the thesp talent pool has shrunk, thanks in part to cable.

    That’s one reason why casting is slower than usual this year.

    “You count all the cable shows paying network-sized rates and attracting the same men and women,” one exec said. “More people are tied up.”

    Big-named stars are particularly more apt to head to cable, where the episodic commitment is smaller, and the prestige level appears to be higher. That’s why the nets are having a hard time casting roles that demand a sizable name, like NBC’s “Prime Suspect” adaptation.

    “That may not be a bad thing for all of us,” another exec said. “I believe what TV does best is make stars. This forces you, instead of going to a name, to really doing what casting directors and creators ought to do — testing a lot of people to see how things perform.”

    Meanwhile, the nets and studios also ran into a lot of actors who simply didn’t want to shoot outside of Los Angeles. But as the clock ticks and so many pilots head out of town, execs said those thesps are now a bit more willing to pack a suitcase.

All of these factors are leading to pilot budget inflation this year. That’s led to several cases in which networks or studios, looking at their bottom line, simply let go of a high-profile project.

Sony, for example, informed Fox that it would no longer produce its Will Arnett comedy, which came from fellow “Arrested Development” alums Mitch Hurwitz (and his Tantamount production partnership with Eric and Kim Tannenbaum) and Jim Vallely.

Insiders noted that the studio was already stretched to the limit with 14 pilots — and the Arnett/Hurwitz/Vallely project was deemed too expensive. That’s also why Fox sibling 20th Century Fox TV didn’t step in to replace Sony on the show; Lionsgate is now close to taking over studio duties.

Fox’s drama pilot “Worthy” is also believed to be looking for a new studio, as 20th dropped out. (Pariah remains a producer.)

On the flip side, 20th managed to find a new home at NBC for Imagine’s “Friends With Benefits” after ABC dropped the project.ABC could afford to let “Friends With Benefits” go, having picked up a whopping 23 pilots this year.

And they’re not the only ones with a hefty roster. The Big Four are all casting a wide net this year.

“Each of the networks appear to be ordering, meaningfully, more pilots than previous years,” one studio exec said. “Everyone feels more confident heading into May.”

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