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TV execs experiment with episode orders

Nets ordering fewer episodes to create sked flexibility

The broadcast networks, with one notable exception, are giving out episode orders this year that sound more like a lottery ticket than TV series pickup pacts: 15, 11, 8, 6, 13.

By necessity and by design, the networks are diverging from TV tradition of 13- and 22- or 24-episode orders to gain more flexibility in scheduling and to make the most of finite programming budgets.

Fox picked up midseason drama “The Following” for 15 episodes because star Kevin Bacon would commit to no more. It also gave a 13-and-out final season order to “Fringe.” The CW is said to be giving an 11-episode final season order to “Gossip Girl” for reasons that apparently will be made clear at the netlet’s upfront on Thursday.

NBC has given most of its returning comedies 13-episode orders for the full season (obviously that could change in success). That strategy undoubtedly helped the Peacock afford to pickup a bumper crop of seven comedies — one of which, Lionsgate TV’s Dane Cook starrer “Next Caller,” got a six-seg order.

Of the Big 4, CBS has stuck with the tried-and-true, and goodness knows, it’s working for them. ABC under entertainment prexy Paul Lee has also been creative in juggling episode orders to keep a steady stream of fresh programming on the air. But it’s not as simple as it sounds, especially when a network is dealing with an outside studio.

As Alphabet execs hunkered down to set the 2012-13 schedule, there was chatter that the Shawn Ryan actioner “Last Resort” is a prospective event series — i.e., next season’s “The River” — that would warrant a shorter order of eight or 10 episodes. But that would have been a nonstarter for “Resort” producer Sony Pictures TV. Why? Because the studio is heavily dependent on international licensing revenue to cover costs on the show, and anything less than 13 episodes would make it much harder for Sony to command top dollar (or yen or pound or mark) from foreign buyers.

“Resort” is not an inexpensive proposition: The ambitious drama follows the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine (any time you’re dealing with water, the pricetag goes up) that goes renegade on an exotic island after defying orders to fire nukes into Pakistan. It’s not clear if ABC even got to the stage of proposing a short order to Sony Pictures TV, but the conversation probably would have gone something like this: “You want Shawn Ryan, Andre Braugher and a lot of sweaty action, you gotta fork over 13 license fees. Period.”

When ABC unleashed its series pickups on Friday, “Resort” indeed got 13, while an ABC Studios drama, “Red Widow,” received eight eps, the same as “The River” last year.

Another notable trend that’s emerged from this year’s pickup parade is an apparent weakening of the Big Name producers’ sway on series orders.

For the second year in a row, ABC opted against an order for a Marc Cherry pilot, “Devious Maids,” that was in contention down to the final hours of decisionmaking. Nor did Roland Emmerich’s film bona fides put his ABC drama pilot over the top.

NBC chose not to RSVP for Greg Daniels’ comedy “Friday Night Dinner,” nor did it check in to Jason Katims’ hospital drama “County.” CBS passed on Jerry Bruckheimer TV’s drama “Trooper” and in the same breath canceled “CSI: Miami” after 10 seasons. Plenty of observers (me included) figured the math in the Bruckheimer-CBS equation had to add up to one of those properties being on the air next fall. But to quote the great R&B philosopher Chuck Berry, it goes to show you never can tell.

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