Instead of twiddling their thumbs in the face of dark soundstages, quiet phones and empty datebooks, network and studio execs are plotting ways to twist the Writers Guild strike into a positive.
With a pilot season on the ropes, an upfront sales marketplace in jeopardy and slates slowly being wiped clean, several toppers say now is the time to trigger a monumental shift in how the broadcast networks do business.
Webheads and studio chiefs have groaned for years that the way pilots are developed is anachronistic in the age of 500 channels and the Internet. Ditto the way shows are launched and sold to advertisers. But despite all the talk of “year-round development” or staggered fall launches, it’s been just that — mostly talk.
Now, with the potential of a long strike in the offing, industry execs may have no choice but to finally make good on all of that “we can’t do business the way we used to” rhetoric.
“We have to take advantage of the strike and look critically at what we’re doing,” says one network chief. “The good thing about this, if there is anything good, is that it’s forced everyone to look at the positives and negatives of our business model.”
Among the likely transformations:
- Development season as we’ve known it may be over. A long strike will force networks to break out of the familiar pattern in which most pilots are shot over a two-month period in the spring.
“It will fall away,” one studio chief says. “You’ll make stuff over the span of the year, and more things will go directly to series.”
Studio chiefs welcome the idea of year-round development, arguing that producing pilots in such a short time frame isn’t cost efficient.
“If we go to year-round development, it lowers the cost of production,” one studio captain says. “You won’t have the frenzy of everyone looking at the same actors and directors. That’s got to be a good thing from a cost standpoint.”
Many believe nets will also simply make less pilots overall, or switch to cheaper presentations.
While series commitments cost more initially, nets save millions by not having to waste money on building new sets or other costs associated with pilots.
“A couple years ago, a pilot cost $2 million to $3 million. Now people expect it to be up to $7 million. That’s insane!” one insider says.
NBC has two or three projects going directly to series (including “Robinson Crusoe”) while CBS gave a series order to Jerry Bruckheimer-produced sci-fi thriller “Eleventh Hour.”
Given that only a handful of new shows ultimately come from pilot season, one exec says much of the avalanche of work that comes with traditional pilot season was unnecessary.
“Everyone is satiated by feeling busy — ‘We’ve got 90 projects in the works, we’ve got things set up all over town’ — but all of that is fake commerce,” he says. “At the end of the day, all of that doesn’t deliver a hit show. It doesn’t make money for the creators or the entities that own the shows. I just feel like that manufacturing process has outlived its usefulness.”
- Costs will be slashed. One studio prexy says the strike will force a fiscal discipline long discussed in Hollywood but never implemented.
“We’re going to lose a number of episodes this season, which means we won’t be able to amortize the costs of these episodes,” the studio prexy says, noting that if the strike goes on long enough, studios will lose millions in lost DVD and international revenue. “We’re never going to get that money back, so we’re going to have to demand that the shows make it up (next season).”
“In general, it feels like the free lunch is over,” the exec adds. “This business has to catch up to the realities of what sorts of profits it’s making.”
In order to help pay for shows, another change could come from where pilots and series originate. Because of the strike, NBC is now in the international co-production business (something the feature world has done for years, and a model HBO adopted over the past decade with shows like “Extras”), and as costs grow higher, more nets may follow suit.
Just as nets have already started using more and more foreign actors, writers from around the world will have a better shot at getting on American primetime.
“It’s going to become a global business,” one studio chief says.
- Premiere week will be replaced by year-round debuts. If pilot season gets disrupted because of the strike, you could see returning shows debuting in late August or early September, and new shows bowing throughout the year.
“When everyone tries to launch 30 new shows in a week in the fall, we end up screaming in the wind,” one suit says. “We spend $200 million collectively in off-air media to get the word out, and we have to change that.”
Networks like Fox were already planning to air original episodes of existing shows like “24” in June, part of a plan to extend the season beyond the traditional September-May confines. Depending on when a strike is settled, leftover episodes of shows (assuming they’re produced) could result in more original programming year-round as soon as this year.
Year-round development and scheduling would be another nail in the coffin for sweeps, which have already seen their importance wane as the nets move away from longform programs and Nielsen adopts people meters in more local markets.
- Some of the “show” will go out of the biz. The strike has already claimed the January TV Critics Assn. press tour as a casualty, and while the org has says it plans to mount a winter 2009 tour, some nets are leery.
The next casualty could be annual programming fashion show known as the upfronts. NBC says it won’t be going to Radio City Music Hall this May, and other networks might eventually follow suit.
“The upfront has turned into this dog-and-pony show that’s meant to talk to five people,” one network insider laments.
- Broadcast TV will look and act more like cable. For example, nets will make in-week repeats more common as they look to reduce the number of hours devoted to first-run programming. ABC has often resorted to twice weekly broadcasts of “Grey’s Anatomy,” while this fall, each episode of NBC’s “Chuck” aired twice a week.
“I think we’ll move more toward a cable playbook and double-pump things more often,” one programming exec says. “If you have a big enough hit, there’s no reason not to.”
In addition, look for more shows, but fewer episodes. While nets will always want lots of episodes of hit skeins, modest performers may shift to a cable model, with between 13 and 16 episodes produced each season, rather than 22.
The idea of more targeted development — fewer pilots, which as a result are more likely to go to series — also emulates the cable world, as does the idea of a smaller upfront presentation.
“To the degree the industry moves toward a cable model of maybe developing two to three pilots for a timeslot, I look forward to that,” a studio topper says.
And as ratings continue to decline — particularly if a long strike gets viewers out of the TV habit —nets will redefine what makes for a successful show.
“We have to manage for profit margin and not for ratings,” one wag says. “You just can’t look at the rating anymore. You have to say, ‘At this price point, with this much DVD revenue and ad revenue (from product placement), can we make a nice business out of this rating in this timeslot?’ ”
One studio exec says nets need to find a way to come up with a better mix of scripted programming.
“It’s OK to have your $3 million-an-episode shows, but you also have to have some shows that cost $1.9 or $2 million.”
It should be pointed out that industry execs have been saying similar things for at least a decade, and most likely much longer. Even the network honchos making these proclamations admit they sound like broken records.
“You’re going to hear way more rhetoric than see ultimate results,” sighs one webhead. “What will fill the void between now and the end of a strike will be plenty of proclamations of change. That’s why you won’t see any official policy shifts announced over here.”
The exec notes that once the strike ends, “a gigantic and powerful tractor beam will attempt to pull this industry back to the same-old same-old. You won’t be able to unwire it in one season regardless of how long the strike goes. Too many people have done it the same way for too long.”
As a result, change will take place, he says — but the revolution that everyone expects won’t happen immediately.
Others wonder if the suits aren’t spouting lines about change simply as a means of scaring striking scribes. The traditional way of doing things has made a lot of people rich, and a number of Hollywood constituencies — agents, for example — have a vested interest in the old dysfunction.
One exec believes webheads need to turn spin into reality.
“It would be horrible if at the end of this, we all just tried to make the old system work,” the honcho says. “This is a great opportunity to come up with a model that makes television healthier.”