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ABC Gets Ahead of Competition in Pilot Season by Casting Stars Early

ABC Pilot Season Casting
Photos: Rex/Shutterstock; Illustration: Variety

The broadcast development slate in December always provides a rough image of what the television screen might look like the following fall. This year, the picture is a little clearer. That’s because the Big Four are getting a head start on casting their lead actors — a strategy that signals a renewed effort by studios to break out of the strictures of pilot season.

With so much competition, networks and studios have suffered over the past few seasons from a drought of resources: showrunners, set space, cameras — and stars. This year, the industry is getting ahead of the problem by nabbing big names before they have a chance to take a deep dive into the pool of pilot scripts.

“It’s no secret that pilot season has become more and more bottlenecked every year in respect to talent,” says ABC Studios president Patrick Moran. “Anything we can do to get out ahead, we’re going to try to do.”

By Thanksgiving, Courtney B. Vance, Felicity Huffman, Zach Braff, Toni Collette, Alan Cumming, Craig Robinson, Adam Scott, Anders Holm, Morena Baccarin, Damon Wayans Jr., Seann William Scott, social-media star Andrew Bachelor, and TV icon Carol Burnett were among the growing list of actors who had already signed onto projects for the following TV season. Kyra Sedgwick and Seth MacFarlane are also on board projects picked up straight to series earlier this year.

That’s quite a jump on the typical spring-casting process, which kicks into high gear after pilot pickups that begin in late January. By securing talent months prior to the usual start of the cycle, studios avoid the casting scramble from which they rarely emerge with first choices in hand. They also create an appealing package to present to executives who are deciding which pilots to order.

“I think we were able to leverage a better commitment from the network,” says Moran of his studio’s project with Vance and Huffman, whose Kenya Barris-produced comedy landed a pilot production order at ABC.

Insiders say in order to get a hefty commitment like that off the bat, the show creators have to be aggressive in attracting talent to their projects, so that they present a full package to execs.

Jonnie Davis, creative affairs president at 20th Century Fox Television, points to his studio’s “Empire” and “This Is Us” as examples of recent series whose creative and commercial success have made high-profile writers warm to the idea of doing broadcast shows, noting that top writers attract top talent. “Three years ago, I’d spend most of my meetings trying to convince people why a hit on network television was a big, big win,” Davis says. “I feel like network TV right now has a real spring in its step. People are wanting to come back.”

The acting pool is not the only overtaxed pilot-season resource. Finding top directors as well as crews and locations in production hot spots like Chicago, Toronto, and Vancouver is increasingly challenging as the volume of TV series across cable, streaming, and broadcast continues to rise. At Universal Television, president Pearlena Igbokwe is pushing to get scripts handed in on a timely basis without sacrificing quality.

“In the circumstances where we can control that, I’m talking to my team constantly about how we feel about a script. Are we ready to hand it in? If we can get it in early and start having discussions with the network, that’s great.”

Network and studio chiefs have long railed against the limitations and inefficiencies of pilot season. But those shackles are not easily broken. Former Fox Broadcasting chief Kevin Reilly famously declared that his network would be “bypassing pilot season” at the TCA winter press tour in 2014. He was fired four months later.

The bulk of development remains pegged to May upfronts and the unveiling of fall broadcasts schedules. But studios continue to look for ways to expand the calendar.

“You show a network a great script that’s packaged — here’s the director, here’s the talent — an undeniable script can get made any time of the year,” Davis says.