Aiming to stand out in a crowded field, broadcasters this season have leaned on the stability of their schedules and the return of established hits. But for many of the same reasons, they’ve also begun to seed the ground for next year’s crop of shows, considering that top performers like “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Empire” and “Supernatural” are on the way out. Indeed, the development for the 2020-21 season has been picking up steam, with a number of projects already announced. A key for network buyers: shows that will further refine their brands.
“They definitely need to think outside the box,” one TV lit agent who spoke with Variety says. “The usual stuff isn’t going to cut it.”
According to multiple agency sources, ABC is pushing hard to bring women back to the network under the stewardship of new ABC Entertainment head Karey Burke. To that end, the broadcaster is on the hunt for shows with female lead characters, no doubt to fill the Shondaland-sized gap in its schedule now that “Scandal” has ended and “Murder” is coming to a close after its upcoming sixth season.
Among the network’s goals: finding primetime soaps. ABC scored success in that arena with shows like the original “Dynasty,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Revenge,” all of which ran for multiple seasons, with those first two series also garnering numerous Emmys and Golden Globes.
Female characters are also key for ABC comedies. The network has announced development on one multicam half-hour from “Modern Family” star Sarah Hyland and “Big Sick” writer Emily Gordon, and another from Kristin Hensley and Jen Smedley, the duo behind digital series “#IMOMSOHARD.” Sources note the network is not looking for traditional family sitcoms, given that it developed many such projects last year, ultimately ordering just two — “Black-ish” spinoff “Mixed-ish” and the multicam “United We Fall.” At the time, “United We Fall” was said to have been sold as part of a package along with fellow Sony TV-produced legal drama “For Life.”
CBS, meanwhile, is looking for sophisticated comedies with a more adult perspective and cultural relevance. It has a Kaley Cuoco-produced comedy starring Santina Muha and Lindsey Kraft in the works. And Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are executive producing a comedy set at the United Nations. The network doesn’t appear to be as eager to find new dramas, with returning shows including “NCIS” “FBI,” “Blue Bloods” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
Fox, which is losing one of its flagship series — the music industry drama “Empire” — is rumored to be on the lookout for shows with a music element as well as a focus on characters of color. The stand-alone broadcaster is also experimenting with shorter-run event series like “BH90210” and its upcoming holiday series “A Moody Christmas.”
Fox has been doubling down on animation, with three new animated comedies set to air during the 2019-20 season and more in development. James Corden is developing an animated laffer at the network, as are comedian Maz Jobrani and the duo of Elliot Kalan and Jenny Jaffe. Also on the thematic to-do list: an ensemble laffer featuring working-class characters and a female-led comedy series.
NBC has been cultivating a strong single-camera comedy crop with popular feel-good shows like “The Good Place” and “Superstore” and the recently added “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Better still, all three programs have shown remarkable ratings growth in digital viewing. The network wants to stay in the single-cam business but will remain highly choosy about the projects it orders. And multicams aren’t out of the question, with “Indebted,” co-starring Fran Drescher, launching at midseason.
NBC’s drama slate is stable, anchored by megahit “This Is Us,” last season’s breakout “Manifest,” and Dick Wolf’s three “Chicago” shows as well as “Law & Order: SVU.” That said, the network is developing series adaptations of the films “Serendipity” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It’s also open to high-concept procedurals and splashy ideas like midseason entry “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” about a woman who can hear what people desire through songs.
Finally, The CW will be aiming to replace both the long-running “Supernatural” and DC’s “Arrow,” which both sign off this season. The network is said to be developing series that are more male-skewing in order to maintain a gender-balanced audience, since much of the current lineup skews female. The net is also said to be looking for a comedic twist in hourlongs, given the number of darker dramas it has, like “Riverdale” and the upcoming “Nancy Drew” series.
Of course, whether or not there will be room on next year’s broadcast schedule for so many new shows depends on the performance of those airing this season. Clearly, the networks are hoping for moderation.
Media consultant Brad Adgate notes that adapting to the rapidly shifting media landscape will be key to any network’s long-term survival, and tells Variety he’s surprised the broadcasters have been adhering to the same development calendar for decades.
“It’s extraordinary that they are still going down this path,” Adgate says. “At some point, something will have to change. I thought it would have changed by now, but it’s still business as usual. Nothing is that different from premiere week than it was 30 years ago.”