‘I’d Forgot How Dumb It Was’: Network Chiefs Talk Pilot Season, Programming

HRTS The Network Chiefs
Courtesy of chyna entertainment & design

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke hinted at a “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” franchise and Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn expressed a desire to shake up the traditional pilot season cycle at the Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon at the Beverly Hilton on Monday.

Moderated by Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton and fronted by ABC’s Burke, Fox’s Thorn, CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, and NBC co-presidents of scripted programming Tracey Pakosta and Lisa Katz, the panel offered a couple of key insights in the wake of this year’s upfronts.

A ‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Franchise? 

Burke didn’t initially know if Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear’s remake special of an episode of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” would work, but the special netted a solid viewership, and she revealed that such live specials are “something that we looked at as a franchise.”

She sees the programming as being a “big circulation play” to draw eyeballs in as occasional tentpole events.

As viewers increasingly tune into new shows and old favorites through streaming platforms, the network leaders discussed how to keep people coming back to linear programming. Live is just one part of the equation.

“How do you create more urgency?” mused Fox’s Thorn. He pointed to the upcoming “90210” reboot as a pop culture “nostalgia event” that he hopes will make the ’90s soap worthy of appointment viewing.

‘I’d Forgot How Dumb It Was’ vs. ‘I Don’t Hate It’: Development Cycle Divides

Among the splits in opinion among the network chiefs was their attitude toward the usefulness of the annual development cycle and the rhythms of pilot season amid so many industry changes.

“I’d forgot how dumb it was,” said ABC’s Burke. Her time working in cable served to reinforce the focus and discipline needed to make judicious use of resources, she said, saying the that current model isn’t good for the talent, creators or audience.

“I would love to bust the cycle. There’s still a certain relevancy to upfront season of course… but I think it’s really interesting to try to figure out how to disrupt as we go forward.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

“We want to be off-cycle as quickly as possible too,” said Fox’s Thorn. If we could design the way it would work, it would be: the bulk of our development series would be ordered off-cycle, and pilot season – which I don’t think will ever go away – would complement it, instead of the reverse.”

CBS’ Kahl, however, seemed content with the current model.

“I don’t hate it,” he said, adding that there was “something kind of exhilarating” about having the whole team work in unison and “see who can deliver under pressure.”

Working Together to Surface Good Shows

The network leaders all seemed to agree that there was a sense of cooperation among the various rival studios and networks in order to bring good shows to the small screen.

“Co-productions seem to be the rule now more than the exception,” said Fox’s Thorn, noting that there seems to be a “real willingness from all parties to engage in that.”

Burke noted that four of ABC’s seven new series are from outside suppliers. And Kahl made clear that good storytelling remains the most important factor, regardless of which studio is producing it.

“I think we still need to think about content coming first, and if you limit yourself to essentially your own studio, you’re really excluding so many great thoughts and idea and so much talent out there,” said Kahl, who said it’s possible to “have it both ways.”

‘Cobra Kai’ on CBS? Kelly Kahl Wishes 

Lastly, when asked which show could, perhaps counter-intuitively, work on their networks, the four networks’ chiefs fielded some interesting responses.

Burke said she would like to believe that BBC’s “Killing Eve” would’ve worked on ABC, citing the “incredibly complicated” relationship between the two female leads. Kahl would’ve wanted YouTube Red’s “Cobra Kai” for CBS, calling it “brilliant… old, new, it’s very smart.”

Thorn picked off-the-air “The Office,” calling it “still the only show that really takes on (office politics) in that equal-opportunity, offensive way.”

And NBC’s Katz and Pakosta would’ve wanted Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” praising the show’s female leads, written by a female voice.

“Other than the language, I don’t think there’s no reason that it couldn’t be on broadcast,” said Katz.