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Broadcast Networks Brace for Big Decline in Pilot Orders

This year’s broadcast pilot season is shaping up to be one of the leanest in recent memory as far as sheer numbers are concerned.

Among ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC, 59 pilots have been ordered so far for the 2019-20 season. That number also includes two straight-to-series orders at Fox and one at NBC. According to multiple sources, each of the networks is nearly done with its pilot orders for the season. Should the current pace of orders continue, that would put the total number of projects ordered this year in the low- to mid-60s. Compared with the 76 pilots ordered in 2018, this year will more than likely be down 10%-20% from last; that would mark the fewest number of pilot orders going back at least 7 years.

According to several agency sources, the decrease in volume is partly due to a shift in strategy by the broadcast networks, which are looking to be more targeted in deploying their resources to counter the deep pockets of cable and streaming platforms like Netflix.

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told Variety that allocating money for development and pilot orders is always top of mind but cautioned that CBS had not yet decided exactly how many pilots to order.

“We take the responsibility very seriously of how we use our resources, and we don’t make pilots just for the sake of making them,” Kahl said. “We want to essentially guarantee that it’s worth making and might have a chance of getting on our air. But the actual number hasn’t been determined yet.”

According to sources, the networks had told agencies that they would be looking to develop fewer projects this year compared with years past. And rather than invest substantial capital in nurturing and launching a new show from an unknown creator, the networks are instead focusing on current shows that are more likely to score solid ratings returns than a new show would. Renewing an existing show also gives the networks a better chance to retain top talent, preventing losses to other platforms. High-profile producers like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris recently exited their deals at the traditional studios for pacts reportedly worth nine figures at Netflix.

Among the broadcast regulars with pilots in the works this year are: Chuck Lorre (“Bob Hearts Abisola”), Robert and Michelle King (“Evil”), Paul Attanasio (“Nancy”), Mike Royce (“The Story of Us”) and Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (untitled Nancy Drew pilot). And of course, it wouldn’t be pilot season without multiple Greg Berlanti-produced projects (“Batwoman,” “Prodigal Son,” “Katy Keene”) in the pipeline. 

Cable and streaming are also affecting broadcast networks’ ability to build out writers’ rooms for new projects, given that development is year-round for the broadcast rivals rather than during a single specific season. According to one agency source, by the time the Big Four come to the agency looking for writers to staff their shows, many of their best clients are already working on projects at other platforms.

“We want to essentially guarantee that it’s worth making and might have a chance of getting on our air.”
Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment president, on the network’s strategy for ordering pilots

Another major factor affecting pilot orders this year is executive turnover.  In an unprecedented turn of events, each of the broadcast networks has seen at least one major executive change in the past few months: Channing Dungey left ABC for a VP role at Netflix; Bob Greenblatt exited NBC; Gary Newman and Dana Walden are departing Fox Broadcasting amid Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox; and Showtime chief David Nevins has taken oversight of CBS Entertainment in the wake of Leslie Moonves’ ouster from the company.

Then there’s the issue of vertical integration. More and more, the broadcast networks are ordering projects from their sister studios, meaning independents are less likely to net any series orders. According to one agency source, Sony Pictures Television went into this pilot season bracing for a dearth of pickups. Time has borne out that expectation. Of the 59 pilot orders thus far, only four are Sony projects, and two of those are co-productions with other studios. Sony has instead focused its efforts on developing projects for cable and streaming.

With the television landscape in a state of flux like never before, it was inevitable the broadcast networks would change a few things to keep up. The extent of those changes remains to be seen. 

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