Pilot Season Shakeup

ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC experiment with different game plan that could leave pilot season on the bench

This is turning into TV’s year of living dangerously — the moment when there’s finally as much action as talk about the need for the Big Four networks to shake up the conventions of pilots season.

The broadcast nets have handed out a range of exotic development pacts this pilot season, keeping business-affairs departments working overtime on new deal points and templates. There are more straight-to-series orders, more plans to shoot pilots in the summer and fall, more writers working away on multiple scripts and bibles — all giving execs plenty to consider before granting a formal greenlight. More projects are getting pushed back for further work when initial efforts don’t impress.

Make no mistake: Networks and studios are breaking out the shovels to make foundational changes, with the goal of cementing new protocols for next year and beyond. Fox and NBC have led the charge, while ABC and CBS have taken their own steps to varying degrees. Industry vets say it is a necessary response to the headwinds buffeting the broadcast biz: the dramatic shifts in the way people watch TV and the qualitative rise of cable programming.

“We are in a state of transition,” says Joe Earley, chief operating officer of Fox Broadcasting Co., “and there are growing pains.”

SEARCH: TV Pilot/Series Orders By Network 

But as much as things are changing, much remains the same. Pilot season, which starts in earnest right after the new year, is a galvanizing point on the calendar for network execs as they brace for the upfront programming presentations in mid-May. With more than 80 comedy and drama projects to cast, shoot, edit and polish inside of 90-odd days, the best way to describe the atmosphere at nets and studios at this time of year is to use a handy sports term: March Madness.

Just like the annual college basketball tournament, pilot season starts out with dozens of teams competing for glory, but only a handful make it to the finals. And fewer still go all the way to a championship — a healthy run in primetime and syndication.

Pilot orders for the 2014-15 season are down about 15% from last year’s cycle, to 87 this year from 102 in 2013. Most of that drop, however, has been offset by the spike in the number of straight-to-series orders and the mania for limited series. The networks are collectively developing just as much content as ever — if not more — they’re just doing some of it on a different timetable than in years past.

The Big Four each spends $80 million-$100 million on programming R&D each year. Those numbers aren’t going to decrease any time soon, industry execs say, especially with the reduction in primetime reruns and the move to program originals over the summer.

But with the core network economic model — advertising sales — facing its own challenges, it’s no surprise that nets would look for more efficient ways to deploy development resources. That has raised concerns among some that the traditional compensation formulas codified in the master contracts of the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA won’t keep pace with the new ways of doing business.

For the most part, however, writers and other creatives are embracing the willingness to be more experimental.

“I think it’s remarkable how quickly things have been changing,” says Rick Rosen, WME’s TV chieftain. “People are consuming content much differently, and that requires the networks to think about how they’re getting audiences to these shows. When you see the leading broadcaster in the business, CBS, doing things outside of their normal wheelhouse, you know that all rules are up for grabs right now.”

The broadcast nets have been adjusting for years to the sobering reality that they are no longer the automatic first stop for top talent, given the creative freedom, shorter series orders and longer production lead time offered by most basic and pay outlets (which now include Netflix and Amazon). But in the past two years, the talent drought has noticeably worsened.

With so many showrunners and seasoned writers, particularly drama specialists, already working on original series, the networks have felt a slowdown of product as the ranks of experienced scribes who have the time (and the contractual ability) to develop new projects have become stretched thin. Sony Pictures TV, for example, has a strong roster of drama writers and showrunners, but is developing only one drama pilot this year because its heavy hitters are all tied up in the best possible way: on shows. A good example is Ron Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”), who commanded not one but two straight-to-series orders during the past year: Syfy’s “Helix” and Starz’s “Outlander.”

The re-engineering under way at Fox is an effort to become more talent friendly, with fewer grueling production schedules — a strategy that improves the odds of success for each property developed. Under the direction of entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, the network is laser-focused on breaking out of the January-April cycle (“RIP pilot season,” Reilly declared in January) and spreading its development efforts throughout the year.

Fox has created new paths for projects to gestate into series orders, all designed to give writers more time to develop material that has a better shot of getting — and staying — on the air.

The hope is that the longer lead time will allow the network more flexibility in determining the optimum scheduling, marketing and formatting for the show. Does the concept work best as a 10-episodes-and-out limited series? Does it have the steam for a 22-episode season? Or is the story’s sweet spot somewhere in the middle? It’s impossible to make those kinds of decisions when a new project is under the gun to produce episodes on a tight turnaround, Earley says.

“All of these shows require big investments,” Earley says. “It’s just that now we’re trying to put more money into developing series with additional scripts as opposed to the machine-gun spray of lots of pilots, where you know most of them will never see the light of day.”

Observers caution that even with a straight-to-series order and more development time on shows, there’s no iron-clad guarantee that such projects will go the distance. “If the first episode is bad, a straight-to-series order becomes a pilot with a big penalty,” a prominent TV lit agent observed.

As the networks push ahead with new templates, the onus of execution falls in large part on the studios.

“We’re trying to show some elasticity in how we do our development. It’s all a little bit different for us this year,” says Jonathan Davis, 20th Century Fox TV’s president of creative affairs. “But what we’ve always done is to push ourselves to always make sure that we’re never just trying to make a great pilot, but we’re making the best version of a series that we can. It’s an important mentality for us.”

Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president, says this year feels particularly challenging because the Peacock went into the teeth of pilot season with so many projects already in the works, and at different stages; NBC has fielded nearly as many traditional pilots this year as last.

The need to monitor various strands of activity can be exhausting, Salke admits. “We have so many things in the pipeline — and we’re still doing pilot season,” she says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this too much volume?’ We’re scrambling to cast people, scrambling for directors. You’re always asking yourself, ‘Am I compromising too much with the casting on this?’”

CBS TV Studios prexy David Stapf offers another side of the casting conundrum: “A lot of times actors don’t want to sign on early because they’ll say, ‘Come pilot season, I’m going to get offered 10 things.’ ”

Gersh Agency head Bob Gersh acknowledges that the traditional process is good for in-demand actors (and their agents), because the heated competition helps talent land bigger paydays. The surest sign of cable’s ascent, he observes, is the fact that cablers no longer avoid pilot season like the plague when it comes to their own casting searches. FX, Netflix, TBS, TNT and WGN America are among the outlets that have been scouting actors for projects in recent weeks.

Cable “never used to do their things smack in the middle of pilot season,” Gersh says.

The shifts under way at the Big Four, and the year-round activity elsewhere, has turned the early fall period into a busy time for auditions. And the boom in filming in New York has meant that some projects have had to accommodate the Broadway-centric schedules of their actors.

Gersh says the uptick of work for his Gotham-based clients is noticeable. “We did find this year before pilot season started that we had more people already set on shows — that’s definitely more prevalent than it’s ever been before,” he notes. “We’re starting to see a pretty constant stream of casting being done in the fall.”

Meanwhile, closer to the starting point in the process, Salke says she hopes that a more focused approach will
allow NBC to pare down its volume of script commissions. Sifting through 100-plus projects to find the gems is laborious even for experienced development execs. Salke hints that the Peacock is working on a broader overhaul of its development protocols.

“We continue to push ourselves to think about other ways to approach development,” Salke says. “We’re trying to question the process at every step.”

Like NBC, Fox execs are feeling the pressure of juggling multiple development timetables this year. The hope is that the true payoff will be felt in the 2015-16 season, when new projects will have come through the slow-cook process.

“We have had to will this to happen this year,” Earley says. “We just couldn’t talk about change anymore — we had to
do it.”

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