Network Pilot Season In a Frenzy Thanks to Cable and Digital Dealmaking

Digital Streaming Drives Pilot Orders
Mike l. Perry for Variety

Not so long ago, January was literally full of drama.

Network TV development execs typically spent the December holidays reading 60-plus scripts for prospective drama series. The following month would be dedicated to debating and strategizing on the best dozen or so to order to pilot. And then, as Groundhog Day approached, they’d do it all over again with comedies.

This year, the broadcast networks were nearly done handing out all of their pilot orders before January wrapped. They have no choice: The chase for top talent and material is now so fierce that the pilot-season timetable might as well be measured in warp factors. No one can afford to dawdle: The traditional broadcast development cycle has to barrel into a marketplace already humming year-round with deal-making for cable and digital shows.

“All the networks are just trying to get out in front of each other — basically, everyone is racing,” said a writer who had two scripts in contention at two broadcast nets. “I got an email at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve with studio notes. There was just more of a frenzy to turn around scripts for pickup.”

That frenzy is exacerbated by the fact that with 400-plus scripted series on the air in this “peak TV” moment, top creatives at all levels — from showrunners to set designers — are tied up on existing shows. Networks are increasingly in the tricky position of having to make big bets on less-than-seasoned writers in a short amount of time.

Without question, the lure of working in the more freewheeling climate of cable or streaming is also drawing veterans as well as rising stars away from broadcast TV. Showtime programming president Gary Levine recently marveled at how many scribes are willing to trade broadcast TV’s bigger paydays for creative freedom in the commercial-free realm of pay cable and streaming.

“They will freely forsake (more money) to go somewhere they can really write something they’re going to be proud of,” Levine said last month during a panel at the NATPE conference.

United Talent Agency partner Peter Benedek added: “The place where (creative) people are least likely to go is conventional broadcast network television.”

The networks haven’t turned a blind eye to this brain drain. Their response is seen in the high number of straight-to-series orders they’ve handed out in the past few years.

NBC gave a series order last summer to a pitch from “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Mike Schur that’s turned into “Good Place” starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Comedy “King”  Kevin James also nabbed a straight-to-series order for a sitcom at his old stomping ground, CBS — the broadcast network that has ordered the least amount of pilots at this point.

Another benefit of locking up talent early: avoiding all the recasting that went on last year. The head start should give casting directors more time to lock down their picks. “Right now, I think they’re over-ordering, but last year, you basically just offered people jobs because pilots were supposed to be shooting, and you’re scrambling for the cast,” a talent agent said. “Last year, there were not a lot of first choices, so they had to re-cast. We’re trying to avoid that this year.”

Still, the deluge of pilots comes with a harsh reality: not many of them will ever see the light of day; there simply aren’t that many series slots available. But talent is adjusting to that possibility.

“A lot of actors are being super selective,” the agent said, “because the odds of your show getting picked up are slim to none.”

The volume of pilot orders reflects each network’s needs, but the clear trend is that each is turning to trusted stars, showrunners and franchises.

NBC is looking to settle on about 15 pilots in total this year, the lowest number since the Bob Greenblatt regime took over in 2011. The Peacock is considering another Dick Wolf installment in “Chicago Law,” plus comedies from “Parks and Rec” alums Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones.

Fox, on the other hand, has amped its development spending by 30% as the network prepares for life after “American Idol.” The net has a music project from “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels starring Queen Latifah, along with reboots for “24” and “Prison Break.”

ABC, which has ordered over 20 pilots so far, is staying in business with its proven hit-makers: a drama and a comedy from Shondaland; a detective outing from “American Crime’s” John Ridley, and a spinoff of Marvel’s “SHIELD.”

CBS is revamping the familiar character of Nancy Drew, and the CW has more potential series from its tried-and-true pipelines — Greg Berlanti, Kevin Williamson and “Supernatural’s” Jeremy Carver.

“I don’t hate it,” said Fox boss Dana Walden of pilot season, at a recent Paley Center event. “Right now, I love it. Everything’s full of promise. There are great scripts. Nothing has fallen apart. It’s a great time of total possibility. (But) the volume is a little crushing.”

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  1. Rena Moretti says:

    Oh please… Stop the snowjob!!

    The hype about executives reading tons of script is just that: hype.

    In the end, the same few producers and companies keep getting orders and most of the scripts read never had a prayer in H… of being made.

    Every year we are told about a “frenzy” and the plight of the poor executives chasing the oh-so-few competent actors and writers…

    And then they end up with a slate of flops. Like this year, and the one before, and the one before.

    Stop selling us that ridiculous story!

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