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How Broadcast Networks Fight Streamers to Cast Top Stars in Their Pilots

In a matter of weeks, the broadcast networks will go through the annual process of ordering pilots to series for the fall season. 

The casts of this year’s pilot crop feature many broadcast mainstays and strong performers, but also illustrate that cable networks and streaming platforms are now the go-to destination for marquee stars looking to make a splash in TV. 

That’s not to say that there are no big names working on broadcast pilots this year. Some notable stars in the arena this year include Heather Graham, Edie Falco, Michael Sheen and Kal Penn. 

According to David Stapf, president of CBS Television Studios, getting big stars for broadcast pilots is no harder than it has been.  

“I don’t know that it’s any more difficult if you have good material,” Stapf told Variety. “Case in point: We had a great script from Paul Attanasio about the first female police commissioner of Los Angeles. Because the script was so good, we were able to get Edie Falco. Good material can always be the lure to attract top talent.” 

Broadcast shows are still a very lucrative market for talent. Multiple agents who spoke with Variety say they encourage their clients to go out for broadcast pilots, since the standard 22-episode season stands to net them more than they would make on a cable or streaming show with a shorter season. 

Yet awards buzz, and the prestige that comes with it, is being dominated by cable and streaming. In the 2018 Emmys, the only broadcast shows nominated in the
best drama and comedy series categories were, respectively, NBC’s “This Is Us” and ABC’s “Black-ish.” The former lost to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the latter to Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Further, no broadcast stars won an Emmy in any of the major acting categories this year. 

The rise of streaming shows has been sudden. It sent shockwaves through the industry when Kevin Spacey and David Fincher lined up the Netflix series “House of Cards” just eight years ago, marking the streamer’s first completely original production. Now it is commonplace for top stars to do such shows. 

Apple’s streaming slate alone is a who’s who of top talent. Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Octavia Spencer, Brie Larson, Chris Evans and Jason Momoa are just a few of the stars at the nascent streamer. Then you have George Clooney doing “Catch-22” at Hulu, Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone” for Paramount Network,
Russell Crowe starring in a series about Roger Ailes for Showtime and Julia Roberts having just completed “Homecoming” for Amazon. It was recently announced that Jake Gyllenhaal is developing an adaptation of the book “Lake Success” at HBO, in what would be the actor’s first leading role in a television series.  

One TV studio head who spoke with Variety said that one thing the SVOD and streaming revolution has done is force networks and studios to rethink dealmaking with top talent. If a particular star is highly sought after for a broadcast pilot, those behind the show are now willing to be more flexible about not requiring the star to sign on for a 22-episode season or a six-year commitment. In addition, rather than focusing on procedural and episodic shows, as they have in the past, the networks and studios are more willing to develop and order programs that are more serialized. It’s a direct influence of audiences being able to binge-watch shows with ease. 

Of course, even with a major current star, success is not guaranteed. Last season Lucy Hale, fresh off her role in the hit Freeform series “Pretty Little Liars,” signed on to topline the CW pilot “Life Sentence.” The show was ordered to series but was ultimately canceled after 13 episodes. This season, Nina Dobrev made her TV return with the CBS sitcom “Fam.” The show looks likely to get a second-season pickup but has hardly been a breakout, averaging 6.8 million viewers per episode in the most current Live+7 ratings. 

Yet the star-making potential of broadcast pilots remains, even as top talent gravitates elsewhere: An entirely new generation of headliners is waiting to be made. 

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