A Look at Pilot Strategies for ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW

This is Us TV Show NBC
Courtesy of NBC

Peak TV has amped up the competition among networks for the past few pilot cycles. But this year, the growing number of television shows on all platforms and the lack of cancellations at the broadcast networks have compelled broadcasters to focus on quality instead of quantity: The Big Four have ordered nearly 20 fewer pilots this season than last.

Broadcasters seem to be playing it safe when it comes to auspices — the majority of projects hail from A-list producers and writers — but the nets are taking bigger swings when it comes to ideas, as only a handful of reboots and spinoffs are among the series in contention for 2017-2018. The networks also appear to be taking note of the country’s divisive climate with a slew of military-centric pilots.

Here’s our review of the strategies of each of the major networks this season:

ABC

Dramas: 11, comedies: 11

The first pilot order for the Alphabet, which has prevailed in the family comedy space over the past few years, was for “Libby & Malcolm,” about a polar-opposite political pundit couple, starring Felicity Huffman and Courtney B. Vance.

“We’re very proud of our family comedy brand, and we were looking to continue to expand in that vein,” says ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey. “We’re feeling good about standing in the family-comedy universe but also broadening out, particularly to include the workplace.”

Among the workplace laffers is Zach Braff’s “Start Up,” about a journalist who quits to start a business.

On the drama side, Dungey says, the political climate has influenced an “escapist” trend of lighter shows with a “comedic bent.” Examples are “The Gospel of Kevin,” about a man tasked by God to save the world, and “Unit Zero,” an hourlong dramedy starring Toni Collette as a single mom in the CIA.

CBS

Dramas: 9; comedies: 7

As ever, the Eye is heavy on procedural dramas and multi-camera comedies — a recipe that has served the network well.

“This year more than ever our dramas feature distinct characters with unique twists in the procedural space, but we’re also developing a pure character drama with ‘Mission Control,’” CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller says. In the vein of “The Good Wife,” “Mission Control” is a serialized drama with a female protagonist, this time set at NASA.

On the comedy side, Geller adds, “We wanted to continue to buy family shows but also try and find different spins on them.” Multi-cam “Distefano” from “How I Met Your Mother” creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas and single- cam “Hannah Royce’s Questionable Choices” from Matt Tarses and Aaron Kaplan take on blended families.

Fox

Dramas: 8; comedies: 6

Fox is building on past success with genre programming. Seth MacFarlane’s straight-to-series space-opera “Orville,” Liz Heldens and Ridley Scott’s “The Passage,” and Matt Nix and Bryan Singer’s X-Men project all “feel like they belong in the tradition of our shows,” says Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The Resident” from Antoine Fuqua and Amy Holden Jones and “The Beast” from Neal Baer offer two shots at a medical procedural.

On the comedy side, Fox has ordered a field of single-cams. This year’s picks skew toward untraditional workplaces like Antarctica (Liz Meriwether’s “Thin Ice”), a paranormal investigative unit (Tom Gormican’s “Ghosted”), and an airplane (Lon Zimmet’s “L.A. to Vegas”).

NBC

Dramas: 6; comedies: 8

The Peacock will have two cornerstones next season on which to build: a surprise- hit drama entering its sophomore run, “This Is Us,” and a revival of “Will & Grace.” In drama, says NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke, there was an emphasis on “a few great contenders that could work with the ‘This Is Us’ phenomenon — not necessarily trying to replicate another big family show with a hook, but finding different kinds of shows that could live within the DNA of that audience.” Jason Katims’ “Drama High,” Dean Georgaris’ “For God and Country,” and Jenna Bans’  “Good Girls” fit the bill.

With comedies, NBC is following the success of “The Good Place” with several single-cams. “But we also have a couple of multis, given the ‘Will & Grace’ of it all,” Salke says.

The CW

Dramas: 6

“Valor,” about elite helicopter pilots, is one of several military drama pilots picked up this season — along with NBC’s “For God and Country,” Fox’s “Behind Enemy Lines,” and CBS’ untitled Navy SEAL project. “Military seems to be a big trend right now, including our pickup of ‘Valor,’” says executive VP Thom Sherman.

“Black Lightning” gives the CW a possible fifth DC superhero series. The network could also add female-leaning hours with “Dynasty,” starring Elizabeth Gillies, and “Life Sentence,” starring Lucy Hale.

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  1. Jacques Strappe says:

    It would have been appreciated if Variety writers added some critique or impressions of these pilots to counter the network spin.

    • _ says:

      Mission Control sounds not bad. It’s from The Martian’s team.
      Hiring Amy Acker would make it much better, though

      • fred says:

        Dude just stop. Why do you wish this bad thing upon her? Besides, it’s impossible they won’t hire her for this role. Hell, she has more chances to get to star in non-existing MacGyver Spinoff. Which in fact isn’t that bad of idea, considering the fact that Salvation is going to be cancelled and they’ll need another show for this Summer.

  2. _ says:

    So, Mission Control is “a pure serialized character drama with a female protagonist, this time set at NASA.”
    This sounds rather good and promising. Please TV Gods and Geller, do the right thing. Hire Acker for the role.

    • fred says:

      She retweeted Female Scientists-related stuff a few days ago or so. Maybe it was for a reason? Anyhow I’d rather her to star in ‘Intuition’ which is being developed BY SUNDANCE.
      Sundance+AMC>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>CBS

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