NBC mixes messages

Network won't cancel previous pilot orders

What the Peacock giveth, it also taketh away.

NBC said on Wednesday it had no plans to cancel any of its orders for 2008-09 pilot scripts — but that it was dramatically cutting back on future pilot production.

Over the past few days, CBS, Fox and the CW all said that the strike –and its expected impact on pilot season— had forced them to renege on previous script orders. Dozens of scribes were told that the ideas they had previously sold to the nets, but never delivered because of the WGA walkout, were no longer needed.

NBC, however, has decided to do just the opposite, confirming Wednesday that it will not cancel any of its previous script orders. The majority of the net’s 2008-09 development is at sister company Universal Media Studios, but the commitment to stick by script orders also applies to projects set up at outside companies.

Move is a rare bit of good news for striking scribes, who in recent weeks have seen studios slash more than 75 overall deals and watched as numerous networks opted to trim their script orders.

NBC U boss Jeff Zucker told the New York Times Wednesday that his broadcast network was largely abandoning the decades-old tradition of ordering numerous pilots each year. He said the net will still order a couple each year, but would shift more toward a system of straight-to-series orders.

Peacock execs stressed that the net would still order dozens of “first episode” scripts each year, and that it would continue its recent shift toward rolling, year-round development of projects.

Zucker told the Times the move was a result of the WGA strike and the economy.

“It’s clear we are in a recession in the United States, and we’re going to have to manage our business accordingly,” he said.

NBC Entertainment exec VP Teri Weinberg and UMS prexy Katherine Pope said Zucker’s pronouncement, and the decision to stick by its script commitments, were both part of the net’s desire to shake up the development process.

“With the kind of money we’re spending on pilots, we’d like to see that money amortized better (over the course of a series), and also not feel rushed,” Weinberg said. “We want to really nurture that development.”

Because NBC won’t be locked into a traditional pilot season this year — but instead will greenlight projects when they’re ready or when they need them — it didn’t make sense to try to save some short term coin by cutting back pre-strike script orders.

“Given where we are, given that we’re trying to look at everything on a per project basis…we wanted to say, ‘Let’s wait and get these scripts’,” Pope said.

Added Weinberg, “We (wanted) to give the writers a chance to deliver.”

While Weinberg and Pope argued that Zucker’s comments on pilots weren’t that radical, others around town were surprised by his words.

Other nets, including Fox, have been dropping hits about reducing pilot orders this season in favor of more straight-to-series orders. But Zucker’s pronouncement that he was killing pilots, save for “one or two” a year, seemed a bit dramatic to rivals.

“He is basically saying to the entire town, ‘We are not in business’,” one senior exec at a rival company said. “It’s so short- sighted.”

But Pope said Zucker’s declaration was simply a much-needed change to a broken system.

“People are still going to have to write pilot scripts” before series are ordered, she said. “This is just about not wasting money on production. It’s about taking our bets and being smart on the front end.”

The biggest losers in the process could be helmers and thesps, who make millions each year shooting pilots that never go to series.