TV’s ‘put’ putsch

Nets commit to pilots without seeing scripts

As they gear up planning for the 2000-01 television season, network development execs find themselves operating without a script — literally.

Faced with increasingly brutal competish for talent, webheads say agents for writers and producers with even a hint of buzz around them are asking for — and getting — guaranteed “put” pilot commitments before even a word of dialogue has been written. The deals almost always come with huge six- or seven-figure penalties attached to them, guaranteeing agents and talent a rich payday if the network ultimately chooses to pass on the project.

Such megadeals are expected when negotiating for a superstar writer or thesp such as Bruce Helford (“The Drew Carey Show”), Chris Carter or Steven Bochco. The difference this season is that much less established players are snagging guaranteed pilots.

“This is the year of the put,” laments one top network exec. “You could walk in to see a hamster, and if you even express interest in that hamster, they’re going to ask for a pilot.”

NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier echoed those frustrations Wednesday at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s annual panel of network toppers, saying talent now pitches projects “by saying, ‘I don’t want to develop, I just want to make it.’

“The problem with that is that we all have a certain…budget to make our shows with, and once you put ‘put’ pilots out there, you’re out of script money,” Ancier said. “I’m very concerned this year that a lot of people won’t get a shot to write scripts” because funds have been diverted to pay for put pilots.

Almost all the networks are playing the put game this season.

ABC has greenlit at least five put pilots already, with a few more said to be in the works. Alphabet web even committed to 13 segs of a Damon Wayans skein without first seeing a script (though it could be argued that Wayans is enough of an established star to merit such a blind commitment).

The WB has also been unusually agressive, making a two-pilot deal with producer Harold Ramis and an episodic commitment to the creative minds behind “American Pie.”

Ancier’s complaints aside, NBC started handing out puts early, striking a deal with Yvette Lee Bowser back in June. Peacock, feeling the same competitive pressures as its web brethren, has also done pilot deals with Gary David Goldberg and Keenen Ivory Wayans.

CBS isn’t being stingy, either, stepping up to the plate to make blind pilot commitments to Gregory Nava (“Selena”) and Ellen DeGeneres.

While agents make an easy target when trying to assign blame for why puts have become so prevalent, it’s hard to fault reps for taking advantage of the advantageous client.

Real reasons behind the plentitude of puts have more to do with where network television is as an industry circa Y2K:

  • A slew of new network entertainment division toppers are trying to make their marks or atone for the sins of their predecessors. Ancier, for example, came to NBC months after the web’s old regime had alienated many studios with demands for ownership.

  • ABC got off to a late start in the development game, temporarily hobbled by the shotgun wedding of ABC Entertainment and Touchstone Television. Net has had to play a bit of catch up, perhaps forcing it to be more generous than usual.

  • The WB has done boffo biz with its dramas, but has mostly struck out with laffers. Net is making a strong push to lure strong comic writers and producers and has had to loosen its pursestrings to get top names.

  • Frog net has also helped reshape the development process by proving that untested talents with no real TV background — e.g., the producers behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Felicity” — can produce monster hits.

“We continue to place bets on people who haven’t been proven, and that raises eyebrows,” says one WB insider. It also means other nets have to shell out more for what one exec calls “A minus and B plus talent.”

As Ancier noted Wednesday, the abundance of puts means less coin to spend on scripts, reducing the chances of finding that unknown voice or bold new concept. It also sets a precedent which could be hard to break in future years.

One agent says the cycle will only be broken when one major network takes a firm stand against puts.

“Somebody just has to start saying no,” he says.