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TV Networks’ Pilot Spending Reflects Cable Competition

With more outlets buying originals, broadcasters have to make bigger commitments

On paper, it appears that each of the Big Four networks is on track to shoot about 40 to 50 pilots for the 2014-15 development cycle — numbers that are, of course preposterous.

For the past decade, the major broadcast nets have produced 20-25 pilots apiece. ABC and NBC have been on the high end of that range in recent years.

But this year, the Big Four have been on a tear in handing out lofty-sounding commitments to projects. The designations are meant to be public declarations of a network’s adoration for a project — and a leverage point in landing it, in the event of competitive bidding.

A simple script order, the first rung of the development ladder, has become tantamount to the once-coveted “put pilot” deal. This year, however, the status symbol for scribes and showrunners is a “pilot production order,” or at the very least a “pilot production commitment.”

Episodic commitments remain the gold standard of development deals, and they’re still fairly rare. Michael J. Fox and writer-producer Will Gluck raised the bar for everyone last year by commanding a 22-seg on-air commitment from NBC for Fox’s return to sitcom-dom. CBS ponied up 13 episodes last month to land “Battle Creek,” the drama fortified by the heat of “Breaking Bad’s” Vince Gilligan and the involvement of “House’s” David Shore.

The deeper the commitment for a prospective series, the more money a network puts on the table to secure the project and boost its budget. The lines separating a put pilot from a pilot production commitment have blurred in recent years. But generally speaking, for a put pilot, the penalty fee that a network owes the production entity if the script does not go to pilot ranges from $250,000-$500,000.

For a pilot production commitment, the penalty rises to $750,000-$1 million. A pilot production order comes with stickier strings attached, including penalties of more than $1 million and a guarantee the project will command the highest license fee a network pays for pilots or first-year series.

But the unspoken truth about commitment inflation is that even the biggest deals can’t guarantee that a pilot will be shot or that a series will be picked up. Even top talent reps who secure deals for clients scoff at the new deal categories, saying they are primarily “marketing” driven.

The Darwinian reality of pilot season is that network toppers are loath to greenlight pilots for scripts they don’t love, no matter how auspicious the auspices or hefty the deal terms. Networks wind up turning out plenty of weak pilots every year based on scripts that someone thought had genuine potential. No outlet, not even HBO, can afford to blow seven figures (or more) on something that doesn’t impress on the page.

According to numbers crunched by Variety Insight, only 37.5% of put pilot deals made for the 2013-14 development cycle (the current TV season) actually resulted in pilot orders. And only 16.6% of those made it to a series order.

Those percentages are sure to decrease for the 2014-15 cycle, as the number of put deals from the Big Four and CW has skyrocketed to 42 as of Oct. 17, compared with 24 for the entire previous cycle. Last year, there were a total of 12 pilot production commitments, all of which went to pilot, but only seven made it to series order. In this go-round, the nets have already made 16 pilot production commitments, and orders will most likely be rolling in for another few weeks.

The motivation to hand out bigger commitments stems from the competition networks face for top talent and optimum material from cable, and now Netflix. But even with bigger paydays from broadcast TV, the prestige attendant to such deals is undoubtedly on shows at the higher end of the dial. Moreover, the increase in the number of outlets looking for original content has created a heightened demand for drama, so there’s also a drought in available writers with the ability to develop pilot scripts.

How will it shake out next year when crunch time hits for series orders? May the best scripts win.

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