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The new pilots: A lot like last year’s, but with (blank)

A COPY EDITOR APPROACHED a bleary-eyed television reporter last week to ask if he had inadvertently repeated some descriptions in transcribing the various ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox Broadcasting Co. pilot rosters for the coming season.

“No,” the reporter said, “but the networks did.”

It’s always eye-opening to sit through those back-to-back-to-back presentations each spring and note the unerring similarity of pilot concepts that were hatched independently — providing evidence of what anthropologists might call “convergent evolution,” though the latter term is, perhaps, too polite.

Going down a list of the more than 120 pilots presented to media buyers last week, one tends to run across the same log lines and themes over and over. If ever there were evidence to support the old axiom that there are only seven stories to tell, this is it.

Pundits inevitably try to create big-picture themes in analyzing pilot orders and network fall schedules. “African-American comedies are in to attract the hip-hop crowd.””People are looking for light action and escapism.””The Reagan years are over and shows reflect current hard times.””The Western is back.””Hope reigns: Clinton is in the White House.”

In fact, producers and executives are too busy selling to focus on such over-arching themes; rather, the development process involves scanning the airwaves to see what the networks are buying and what’s working on the air, then trying to ever-so-slightly tweak one of those formulas a little bit — just enough to avoid a lawsuit, but close enough to its inspiration so the show can be reduced to “It’s a lot like (blank), but with …”

The other fascinating aspect of development season is how television might affect the perspective of people who derive their entire understanding of our society (such as space aliens, or your out-of-town relatives) from watching the tube. Based on a review of next season’s pilots, for example, a person is just as likely to have their own talkshow as they are to be a teacher or principal. Cops and sheriffs outnumber teachers 5-to-1.

An unofficial survey of those pilots, by subject matter, follows. In several instances shows qualify under more than one heading, which probably increases their chances of making it on air:

PILOTS DEVELOPED AS VEHICLES for stand-up comics: 17

Shows set in small towns: 9

Single parents raising kids alone or dealing with grown kids after being divorced or widowed: 10

Shows in which the scenario involves someone moving from one place to another: 9 (aka the “fish out of water” setup. This year, for example, a cop moves from Philadelphia to Bermuda, but is balanced by a family that moves from California to Philadelphia.)

Shows, drama or comedy, where the principal(s) is/are a cop or sheriff: 15

Comedies in which the setup involves mismatched roommates: 10

Shows set in tropical locales: 5

Feuding families: 5

Shows that feature people in wheelchairs: 2 (one of them, however, builds a harness that gives him superpowers)

Victims of the Reagan era (i.e., investment-banker types forced to move in with a relative or into a trailer park now that the boom times are over): 3

White males sick of political correctness: 3

Sports-related themes (i.e., a teen tennis phenom, a golf pro, basketball players, a football coach, ex-boxer George Foreman): 6

Drag queens: 1

Cavemen: 1

Shows involving doctors or set in hospitals: 4

Shows in which the lead is a principal, teacher or guidance counselor: 3

Shows in which the lead is a TV, radio or cable talkshow host: 3

Shows in which the lead is a superhero: 3

Shows set in the future: 3

Shows set in the past: 3

Rip-offs of “The Fugitive”: 2

Shows involving a nanny: 2

Recovering alcoholics: 1

Series about crazed cult members forced to live together as wacky roommates because the FBI is camped outside their compound: None … yet.

OSCAR POSTSCRIPT: Since we’re already in a list-making mode, the timing seemed right to try and improve the Academy Awards telecast.

The biggest problem with the Oscars every year is that these are, in essence, movie people trying to do a TV show. As a result, some of the stars seem uncomfortable and the show sometimes feels awkward next to the more standard TV programs viewers see on a week-in, week-out basis.

Fortunately, these pitfalls can be avoided by a few simple steps. And so, here are 10 ways to make the Oscarcast more in keeping with the conventions of regular television:

10. Supporting actor nominees must run obstacle course from “American Gladiators.”

9. After a presenter makes a remark laced with sexual innuendo, the audience simultaneously goes “oooh.”

8. When Billy Crystal comes out on stage, audience makes repeated “woof”-ing sounds.

7. Best actor nominees each sent on dates with three different women, who select the ultimate winner.

6. Contestants try to guess the winners hangman-style, with options that include buying a vowel or solving the puzzle.

5. Audience allowed to ask questions as host Geraldo Rivera walks among them with a microphone.

4. Reverse video process used to cloud faces of also-rans.

3. Presentation of award for best actress is immediately followed by presentation of award to her no-talent husband.

2. Oscar rigged to explode in side-impact collision.

1. “And now, tonight’s host, John McLaughlin!”

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