Can New Voices Break Through in Pilot Season Dominated by Familiar Names?

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Nick Taylor for Variety

The broadcast TV development process has changed dramatically during the past few years. The influx of competition from cable and streaming services with big budgets has forced the Big Four networks to move quickly, warm up to spec scripts, offer straight-to-series commitments, and in many instances, accept the fact that they are no longer the first stop for hot TV packages hitting the marketplace.

But one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much in all of this upheaval is the reliance on tried-and-true hit-makers. As networks zero in on their last few pilot orders for the 2017-18 development cycle, the slate is dominated by a host of familiar uber-producers: Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti, Tina Fey, Bill Lawrence. The “How I Met Your Mother” team is back at CBS with a comedy, and Marc Cherry of “Desperate Housewives” fame has come home to ABC, with Reba McEntire in tow, for a comedy.

“When you go through the grids of show creators or producers attached, it’s the obvious names coming up over and over again,” one TV literary agent tells Variety. “I could have picked out which shows would get picked up based on the auspices.”

With $4 million-plus on the line for a typical drama pilot, it’s no wonder network execs would lean on experienced hands. And industry sources note that in many cases, seasoned showrunners are paired with younger or less-experienced writers. But at a time when the boundaries of the creative community seem to be limitless, the networks that still offer the largest mass-market platform for programming seem to have a narrow view of who they trust to tell great stories.

Executives maintain that pickup decisions are based on the quality of what’s on the page, not the gloss factor of the people involved.

“There are a handful of high-profile projects, and we loved all of them, and they were in really good hands with great writers and producers,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “They came together, and we loved the scripts. That doesn’t always happen.”

This year, NBC has pilots from the “30 Rock” duo of Fey and Robert Carlock, as well as Lawrence, Mindy Kaling, and “Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick. All but Lawrence have overall deals at sister studio Universal Television. Salke points out that big commitments don’t always bear fruit.

Nick Taylor for Variety

“We actually were noticing that more of our bigger commitments came through for us than in other years, which is a good thing,” she says. “But at the same time, we would never not pick up something we loved from someone who was relatively lower profile, as far as experience.”

Recent broadcast development seasons have yielded few ratings breakouts besides Fox’s “Empire” in 2014-15 and NBC’s “This Is Us” this season. With more scripted shows across broadcast, cable, and streaming than ever (454 in 2016, according to FX research), turning to experienced producers with seasoned teams around them helps broadcasters mitigate risk.

“Any time you could get another Greg Berlanti or Shonda Rhimes show on the air, why wouldn’t you try?” says the literary agent. “They’re going to continue to put their shows on the air because they have a well-oiled machine and will likely keep a show on air for multiple seasons.”

But industryites question whether that focus on the factory aspect comes at the expense of identifying breakthrough ideas and talent, such as Matt and Ross Duffer of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” or Jill Soloway of Amazon’s “Transparent.”

Adding to the bottleneck, the trend for the past few years among the super-producers has been to have multiple projects in development across the Big Four. Rhimes’ Shondaland, which is hot on getting a comedy on the air, developed two projects for ABC this year, a comedy and a legal drama — with the latter having been ordered to pilot.

“Black-ish” creator/exec producer Kenya Barris had two projects in the works at ABC, both going to pilot — and he’s also working on a “Black-ish” spinoff for the network.

Barris has an advantage in pitching and developing projects since the success of “Black-ish,” which won a Golden Globe for actress Tracee Ellis Ross in January and was nominated for three Primetime Emmys last year. “It’s like night and day,” he notes. That’s in part due to the overall deal he signed with ABC Studios in 2015 after “Black-ish” was picked up for a second season. His relationship with the studio affords him the opportunity to have early conversations with executives about what the network might be looking for in a development cycle. “It really is providing content in a more specified way,” he says.

Bold-faced names from the film world are also prominently in the broadcast mix, with the prospect of marketing a show from a box office magnet clearly desirable to networks. Director Antoine Fuqua was attached to “The Resident” at Fox, which helped the medical drama score a pilot order. Also at Fox, Melissa McCarthy’s star power was a convincing factor in greenlighting the pilot for sibling comedy “Amy’s Brother,” on which she’s an executive producer.

All of this makes it harder for newbies to break into the business. But many established producers try to help bridge the gap for the next generation through mentorship, according to Lawrence, who is under an overall deal at Warner Bros. He’s had two pilots greenlit this season, “Spaced Out” at NBC and “Life Sentence” at the CW. “All these names — almost all of them are shepherding someone else through the system who is young and talented,” Lawrence says.

“Spaced Out” is written by Adam Sztykiel, who created NBC’s sitcom “Undateable,” on which Lawrence was an executive producer. “He’s a monster and super talented. The one reason you see all of these names is the knowledge that in a competitive landscape they might be able to help young men and women that they believe in get through the creative process.”

And having the likes of Lawrence or Barris as part of the package is clearly a boon for the up-and-comers. “The truth is, I hear most of those pitches because of the stature of those producers,” Salke says. “And I definitely don’t hear every pitch.”

Despite the major benefits of working with A-list players, industryites argue that, in addition to vets, making room for newbies is essential, urging broadcast networks to embrace those content creators. Cable nets and streaming platforms have certainly done that in recent TV seasons, which have seen the rise of Issa Rae on HBO, Donald Glover on FX, and the Duffer Brothers on Netflix.

“If you look back in time, people like Lena Dunham and Jill Soloway probably would have never made it on the broadcast side,” an insider says, pointing out the notable dearth of fresh voices at the major broadcasters this year. Considering all the chatter regarding the need for inclusive and diverse storytelling, perhaps it’s time for the networks to take more chances.