Insiders say networks more selective this year

Coming off a TV season without a true breakout hit meant there was no model for networks or studios to emulate in the new crop of series ushered in at the 2011-12 upfronts.

While the emergence of a “Lost” or a “Glee” typically prompts programmers to clone some kind of variation on what’s already proved to work, the creative trends that mark the 43 scripted pilots ordered to series (so far) this year are all over the map, from paranormal thrillers to fairy-tale fantasy to shows set in the New Frontier era of the early 1960s.

To hear studios chieftains tell it, that was liberating.

“I think it’s a reminder to buyers and sellers that you’ve got to take risks,” said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television. “You can’t do the same version of what works.”

Dana Walden, 20th chairman, said there was a clear response from top-tier thesps to pilots this year “because the material was so compelling. Tim Allen, Kiefer Sutherland, Zooey Deschanel, Jason Isaacs — these are huge stars who decided the television business was where the most interesting work was being done.”

New NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt is embracing the no-risks, no-reward mantra — so much so that he wants the Peacock’s Universal Media Studios to increase the volume of projects that it fields to outside networks.

“I want the studio to be vital and start producing more for other networks as well,” Greenblatt said. “The studio business is really important to us. The fact that 20th produces a billion-dollar asset for ABC in ‘Modern Family’ is a business that I wish we were in. I know that means we’re going to take some shots that fail. But in success it’ll be an extraordinary part of our business.”

Zack Van Amburg, prexy of U.S. programming and production for Sony Pictures TV, said network buyers seemed to be more adventurous this year than last.

“It was a lackluster crop last year, to be honest,” Van Amburg said. “What the networks said this year is ‘We’re going to go bigger, go brighter and try not to chase the cable audience.’ ”

Industry insiders also observed that network buyers seemed to be more selective this year, and more willing to pass on projects with high-profile creative auspices if the pilots were not deemed up to snuff. In the case of the CBS drama “Ringer,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Eye realized it wasn’t right for its air but would be a natural fit for CW.

Among the early heatseekers that didn’t make the cut, at least not yet, were ABC’s “Hallelujah,” from Marc Cherry; NBC’s “Wonder Woman,” from David E. Kelley; Fox’s “Locke and Key” and “Exit Strategy,” which starred Ethan Hawke; and CBS’ “Hail Mary,” from Joel Silver and toplined by Minnie Driver. Some of those projects may yet find new homes on other outlets.

Warner Bros. TV fielded a total of 12 pilot pickups from the five broadcast nets. Twentieth Century Fox TV landed 10 new series spread among Fox, NBC and ABC. And the two largest producers of primetime programming already have a jump on next year’s pilot orders after Fox announced it is developing a redo of “The Flintstones” with Seth MacFarlane. Series will be a co-production between 20th, where MacFarlane is based, and WBTV, which controls “Flintstones” rights.

Universal Media Studios was a big factor in NBC’s orders and wound up with eight new shows. Greenblatt, who came aboard at the halfway point of pilot season as part of Comcast’s takeover of NBCU in January, said he was pleased with the “slew of strong comedies and three great dramas” that UMS yielded this year.

ABC Studios has eight new series (including its co-production with WBTV and CBS TV Studios on “Ringer”). CBS TV Studios set five new shows, while Sony Pictures TV sold four: three new dramas (ABC’s “Charlie’s Angels” and “Pan Am” and CBS’ “Unforgettable”), and the CW reality skein “Re-modeled.”

The orders this year reflected a continuation of programming trends that have been unfolding during the past few years: the growing appetite for comedies, particularly multicamera comedies, and more shows with femme leads.

The emphasis on midseason launches is also unmistakable this year. Broadcasters have talked up the importance of year-round scheduling more and more in recent years, but it was clearer than ever that they were really walking the walk, judging by the caliber of programs that will be on the bench in September.

“Sometimes midseason offers better opportunities,” said Peter Roth, prexy of Warner Bros. TV. “It’s not like we’re creating shows specifically for the fall.”

From J.J. Abrams’ thriller “Alcatraz” (WBTV) on Fox to “Smash” (UMS) for NBC, the biggest guns the networks have may not fire until 2012. Nowhere more was that strategy taken to heart than at ABC, where the first sentiment expressed by new entertainment chief Paul Lee at a press conference introducing the lineup was that he was looking to spread the wealth of development across the year, especially using tentpole events like the Oscars and NBA Finals as launch pads. Which means some of the more buzzed-about shows he was developing –ABC Studios’ “Good Christian Belles,” “The River” and “Missing,” to name a few — won’t be seen for a while.

Comedy continues to gain momentum after bottoming out several years ago. The Big Four all stated their intentions to either build new blocks of half-hours or expand existing blocks.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a lack of trying but I do feel a resurgence coming on,” said David Stapf, president of CBS TV Studios. “But only time will tell.”

While NBC removed an hour of the three-hour block it put in place this season on Thursday to make room for new drama “Prime Suspect” at 10 p.m., the Peacock placed a new pair of comedies, UMS’ “Up All Night” and “Free Agents,” on Wednesday. It also contributed to the revival of the multicamera form, which had fallen out of favor for many in the creative community, with its pickups for WBTV’s “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” and UMS’ “Whitney.”

Fox not only put in a new comedy, 20th’s “New Girl” to join “Raising Hope” on Tuesdays, but programming chief Kevin Reilly announced he would add two new comedies to the 8 p.m. hour in March while “Glee” takes some time off between flights of original episodes. If it works, he plans on keeping the four-pack in place next fall.

CBS bolstered existing laffer blocks on Monday and Thursday, and also took the bold step of seeding Saturday with an original series, “Rules of Engagement,” the first time any broadcaster has tried to keep the lights on that night with anything other than repeats in seven years. ABC added an hour of comedy on Tuesday, with plans to expand it later in the year.

All told there are 21 live-action comedies on tap for the fall (excluding Fox’s animated series), and 10 are new. That’s up from the total of 18 that started the fall last year, six of which were new.

While net execs’ increased interest in comedies may arise from the sense that viewers need laughs in tough economic times, the boom is also clearly fueled by the revival of the syndication market for comedies, as evidenced by the mega off-net sales logged last year by WBTV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and 20th’s “Modern Family.” And when they hit, comedies tend to hit very big, and thus become more valuable to a network’s lineup.

There was also a clear shift toward programs that featured female protagonists in hopes of luring more women to the tube.

Some of the most highly regarded pilots and best known talent on the schedule come in this category, whether comedies including Jaime Pressly (Fox’s “I Hate My Teenage Daughter”), Zooey Deschanel (Fox’s “New Girl”), Kat Dennings (CBS’ “2 Broke Girls”) or dramas including Maria Bello (NBC’s “Prime Suspect”), Poppy Montgomery (CBS’ “Unforgettable”), Gellar (CW’s “Ringer) and Kerry Washington (ABC’s “Scandal”).

But as much as industryites like to scrutinize trends, studio chiefs emphasize that success usually hinges on talented creatives to execute great ideas.

“We don’t worry much about anything that happens in the past,” said Roth. “We just demand the best from producers with which we work.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more