Why the Usually Frantic Pilot Season is Less Frenzied This Year

There’s something missing from pilot season this year — that blood-pressure-raising sense of overwhelming frenzy.

The do-or-die panic surrounding the annual springtime ritual of producing some 70-80 pilots in nine weeks or so has ebbed because the process has changed so much in recent years, even for the old-guard broadcast networks.

More and more projects are receiving off-cycle pilot orders or straight-to-series pickups. That allows showrunners to start production at a safe distance from the traditional January-February crush of casting and recruiting directors and other key personnel.

For talent, the pressure has eased thanks to the exponential expansion of job opportunities: With 400-plus scripted series now airing across dozens of outlets in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty of work to be found throughout the year.

Character and supporting actors now routinely pop up on multiple series during any given 12-month period, sometimes even on shows that air concurrently on different networks. It’s no longer an environment where a working actor who didn’t have a pilot picked up in May would seriously worry about paying the bills in October — even if the pay usually isn’t what it once was when the Big Three broadcasters ruled the world.

Another reason that the pace feels slightly less hectic this year is that there are fewer pilots in total coming from the Big Four. NBC, for one, has slimmed down its orders because its needs are lighter, with “Blindspot” clicking and another planted spin-off in its Chicago milieu coming up, “Chicago Justice,” starring Philip Winchester.

Still, even the richest series commitment is no absolute guarantee of getting on the air, which means there’s an ersatz pilot phase even for straight-to-series projects like Kiefer Sutherland’s ABC drama “Designated Survivor”; Kevin James’ untitled CBS comedy; and “Good Place,” the NBC comedy starring Kristen Bell from “Parks and Recreation’s” Michael Schur.

Filming and production on many broadcast network pilots was still in full swing last week, so it’s too soon to tell which projects have the goods to go the distance. But early buzz has been building on a few projects, notably Candice Bergen’s ABC comedy “Pearl,” Marlon Wayans’ laffer for NBC, and Matt LeBlanc’s “I’m Not Your Friend” at CBS, where the half-hour spin on Tracy Letts’ play “Superior Donuts” also has real steam. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are fielding comedies at CBS (“The Kicker” from writer Jack Burditt) and NBC (from writer Tracey Wigfield), and at this early juncture, both look to have a shot.

Drama-wise, the word on the Fox lot is that the “24: Legacy” reboot starring Corey Hawkins is a lead-pipe cinch. And a femme-focused music-biz drama from “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels is said to be in fine shape for an early nod. ABC’s “Model Woman,” the 1970s-set fashion biz vehicle starring Andie MacDowell, has promise, as does Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to “Cruel Intentions” at NBC. CBS has the highest of hopes for Dr. Phil-channeler “Bull,” featuring “NCIS” alum Michael Weatherly.

Other projects getting the right kind of mentions: Shawn Ryan-Eric Kripke’s sci-fier “Time” and Amy Poehler-directed comedy “Dumb Prince” at NBC; Fox dramas “Lethal Weapon” and “Pitch,” the latter about the first woman Major Leaguer; and a pair of franchise-driven CBS hours: “Training Day” and “Drew” — as in Nancy — starring Sarah Shahi.

Elizabeth Wagmeister and Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.

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