Pilot tapes tapped out

Distrib crackdown keeps town guessing

HOLLYWOOD — A studio crackdown has put the kibosh on a time-honored TV biz tradition: passing along bootleg tapes and DVDs of fall pilot contenders.

With the Big Six set to unveil their new skeds next week, this is normally the time of year the town’s assistant class spends hours copying and distributing tapes or discs of the new wannabe shows. This spring, however, there’s precious little for agencies and rival nets to trade.

To help prevent copying, many studios have started putting watermarks on tapes so they can be traced back to their original source. HBO has employed a similar strategy for screener tapes it sends to journalists.

Crackdown has been so severe that one top talent agent said some of his clients are even having a tough time getting copies of their own shows, while another said he’s had clients “get into shouting matches with studio execs” over the issue.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said one insider at a major tenpercentery. “You hear rumors of execs telling assistants they could go to jail if they leak something out.”

Another said he can’t even get his hands on his own network’s tapes, at least prior to the pilot’s official screening.

Studios and nets always make noises about not wanting tapes to be traded with other studios or nets. So why are the rules actually being enforced this year?

Some trace it back to a dictate from top brass at 20th Century Fox TV, who laid down the law last month when early copies of a couple of the studio’s pilots started floating around town — even before the networks where the shows are set up had had a chance to formally screen them.

Others speculate that Leslie Moonves’ control of Paramount Television has further restricted the free flow of tapes. Moonves insists on a strict cone of silence surrounding the development process at his units.

Spreading the word

As frustrating as the crackdown has been for some, one studio exec said it’s necessary in a world where “there’s a tremendous incentive for agents to try to create a bad buzz” about projects with which they’re not associated.

“When you have people who’ve seen tapes calling network execs and saying, ‘Do you really like that?,’ it starts to have an impact on your project,” the exec said.

One agent admitted he’s guilty of spreading bad buzz. “Everyone talks shit about everyone’s pilot,” he said.

Despite the crackdown, agents still are getting an early peek at shows. Most studios let packaging agents on a project screen the show on the studio lot, while some say once a show is officially screened by a network, studios are less hardline about that show leaking out.

The tizzy over tapes hasn’t prevented agents, execs and journalists from spreading all sorts of buzz about various projects. Whether any of it’s true will be apparent in about a week’s time when the upfronts kick off.