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Pilot season detours pay off

Fresh talent, new approaches drive series orders for studios

New blood and lots of laughs were among the notable trends emerging from the 39 new comedy and drama series ordered by the broadcast nets for the 2012-13 season.

There’s a high number of tyro series creators on the sked this year, and a number of film vets making first or rare forays to the small screen, including Lorenzo di Bonaventura (ABC’s “Zero Hour”), Nicholas Pileggi (CBS’ “Vegas”), Callie Khouri (ABC’s “Nashville”), Derek Haas and Michael Brandt (NBC’s “Chicago Fire”) and Dana Fox (Fox’s “Ben and Kate”).

The volume of orders coming out of upfront week was down slightly compared to last year’s upfront, when ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and CW picked up a total of 42 new series. Fox and ABC ordered fewer projects than last year — Fox with five compared to eight last year, ABC with 10 vs. while CW upticked to five dramas, from three. NBC and CBS were status quo with 12 and six, respectively.

The Big Four nets ordered 16 comedies (compared to 17 this time last year) and with the CW, the drama tally came to 23 (vs. 25 last year).

Uber-producer Greg Berlanti batted .500 for the week, finishing with two new series orders, CBS drama “Golden Boy” and CW’s “Arrow,” after fielding four broadcast pilots this season. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage also leave Gotham with two new series, CW’s “The Carrie Diaries” and “Cult.”

Scribes getting their first shot as series creators include Dana Calvo (CBS’ “Made in Jersey”), Jennie Snyder Urman (CW’s “Emily Owens, M.D.”), Robert Doherty (CBS’ “Elementary”), Mindy Kaling (Fox’s “The Mindy Project”), Charlie Grandy (NBC’s “Guys With Kids”) and David Schulner (NBC’s “Do No Harm”) and Amy B. Harris (“The Carrie Diaries”).

There were a few surprises in shows that were not ordered, as some projects that seemed like shoo-ins from heavy-hitter producers didn’t make the final cut. Biz observers noted that the decision-making felt focused on the quality of the shows this year rather than internal political considerations.

“This year felt like the year of the show versus the year of chasing auspices,” said Zack Van Amburg, who is prexy of programming and production at Sony Pictures TV with Jamie Erlicht. Sony hit for the cycle in landing four series orders across ABC (“Last Resort”), CBS (“Made in Jersey”), NBC (“Save Me”) and Fox (“The Mob Doctor”). (Studio also scored an unscripted series order for CBS’ “The Job.”)

Sony is fielding one of the season’s big bets in the high-octane actioner “Last Resort,” a byproduct of the rich overall deal the studio inked last year with Shawn Ryan. That investment paid off, as having one of the biz’s most sought-after showrunners helped alleviate concerns that the show could be delivered on a small screen timetable and budget. Ryan and co-creator Karl Gajdusek “executed on their premise and we all had every confidence it was getting on the air,” Erlicht said.

NBCUniversal’s reconstituted Universal TV production banner went in to this pilot season with a lot to prove, namely that it was back in the game of producing series for non-Peacock outlets.

As such, Fox’s order of comedy “The Mindy Project” for the coveted post-“New Girl” slot marked a big win for the Universal TV team, led by exec veep Bela Bajaria, who signed on last August when the 2012 development season was already off and running.

The project, featuring Kaling as a successful ob-gyn with a messy personal life, started it out at NBC, but when the Peacock started ordering a whole lot of femme-led comedy pilots, Bajaria saw a better opportunity for the project at Fox. The stars aligned in record time, Bajaria notes, as “Mindy” moved across town just days before Fox was wrapping up its comedy pilot orders.

“It was big goal this first year get a big show on another network,” Bajaria said. “We’re very excited to be able to check that box in our first season.”

In all, Universal TV landed nine new series, including Dick Wolf’s “Chicago Fire,” the well-received medical/thriller “Do No Harm” and multicam laffer “Guys With Kids.”

Warner Bros. TV also scored nine newbies, including NBC’s J.J. Abrams-Eric Kripke drama “Revolution,” Fox’s Kevin Bacon starrer “The Following,” ABC’s “666 Park Avenue” and CBS’ buddy comedy “Partners” from Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

“Our producers realized the best of their visions,” Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth said.

One of Roth’s favorite moments of this year’s pilot season came during Kevin Williamson’s pitch for “Following” at Fox. As Williamson discussed how he’d been nurturing the idea for the serial killer thriller for more than a decade, Fox entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly jumped up and dimmed the lights to achieve the proper mood. “It was very endearing,” Roth said.

The backstories on some of the most-anticipated new skeins reinforces that studios and networks are reaching beyond traditional pathways to generate distinctive material.

Twentieth Century Fox TV recruited Jon Lovett to pen the script for White House-set family comedy “1600 Penn” after the former Obama speechwriter wowed studio execs with a presentation at the 20th TV retreat last year, thanks to 20th TV’s comedy development chief, Jonny Davis, who signed Lovett to a blind script deal.

“He entertained us for an hour with incredible stories,” said 20th TV chairman Gary Newman. “That triggered the idea that this guy should really write what he knows for us.”

The comedy boom was good to 20th this year, which landed five new series on ABC, Fox and NBC, all of them half-hours. “We had a lopsided year in terms of comedies versus dramas, but it was a good year to have strong comedies, given how important they are to the networks,” he said.

CBS TV Studios prexy David Stapf got his first taste of what would become “Vegas” when director James Mangold sent him about 30 pages of a film treatment that had been kicking around for a while. Stapf flipped for the story of a Las Vegas sheriff in the early 1960s but was curious about the screenwriter.

“I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” Stapf said. “And then they told us it was Nick Pileggi.”

Of CBS TV Studios’ seven new series, the order for “Emily Owens, M.D.,” toplined by Mamie Gummer, marks a win for a character-rich show that isn’t as “noisy” as CW’s other high-concept series.

“It’s just the alchemy of a great script, a great director, a phenomenal actress and supporting cast,” he said. “We’re very proud of it.”

At ABC Studios, execs and creatives are jazzed about the network’s expansion of its comedy slate — both in terms of quantity and tonal quality. The Alphabet studio’s seven new series orders include three very different comedies: “The Neighbors,” “Malibu Country” and “The Family Tools.”

“The nice thing is now that the schedule allows for a lot of opportunities,” said Patrick Moran, senior veep and head of creative development for ABC Studios. “ABC has built Wednesday night with a very specific kind of comedy. Now we also have a Tuesday night approach and a Friday night approach.”

Moran cited the studio’s experience this year with drama soap “Mistresses” as an example about how traditional development timetables are shifting. The studio first tried an adaptation of the BBC hit about a year ago but wasn’t happy with the script.

Scribe K.J. Steinberg, who was working for the studio on another pilot, “Gilded Lilys,” brought them the first draft of a new take in late January, a point at which most drama pilots are already ordered. But the response to Steinberg’s draft was so good it became a “mad dash” to get “Mistresses” into production, Moran said.

Three of the four lead roles were cast the morning of the table read, which was one day before shooting started. The end result? A 10-episode series order targeted to bow next summer (or possibly midseason if the need arises).

“There was a time when everything happened on a very predictable cycle,” Moran said. “Now anything can happen at any time. You just keep working until people tell you to stop.”

Lionsgate TV logged a high-profile order this year with ABC drama “Nashville,” co-produced by ABC Studios. It also got an order from NBC for the Dane Cook comedy “Next Caller” — which meant the minimajor went 2-2 on pilots this year.

“I like our ratio,” Lionsgate TV prexy Kevin Beggs said. “We don’t take a shotgun approach, but we are willing to bet on quality scripts.”

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