As Coronavirus Pandemic Continues, Television Development Struggles to Pick Up the Pace

Television Production Backlog Coronavirus
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As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the virus’ effect on Hollywood is becoming more pronounced.

Television development has slowed considerably across broadcast, cable and streaming in recent months. The reason: With production still largely shut down, why would networks and studios buy more projects to develop when they’re unable to produce the shows they are already working on?

The result is something of a logjam that will likely persist until production can safely resume on the majority of shows. One agency source says they don’t expect to begin shopping new projects until later this fall, unless the project is based on well-known IP or has big names attached to it.

Further complicating things for sellers is all the reorganizing that has hit major media companies in recent months. NBC­Universal
and WarnerMedia saw high-level executives such as Paul Telegdy, Kevin Reilly and Bob Greenblatt fired; Disney Plus’ Agnes Chu
exited her senior content role at the streamer to head Condé Nast Entertainment; and ViacomCBS is continuing to shift programming strategies across its portfolio of cable networks under Chris McCarthy.

The result in some cases has been confusion on both the network and agency sides. One TV lit agent says that their attempts to sell a project to a cabler under a new programming directive was met with uncertainty from network executives as to exactly what types of projects they are supposed to be buying now.

The reorganizations combined with the pandemic have also accelerated plans to move certain networks out of scripted programming altogether. NBCU’s E! and Bravo were both home to scripted shows but are now focused almost exclusively on unscripted fare. Likewise, WarnerMedia’s TBS, TNT and truTV all currently have scripted content, but their lineups have been dramatically pared down.

Multiple network executives who spoke with Variety framed the situation differently, saying that they are simply being more selective and strategic about which projects they choose to develop. One did say, however, that they have seen far fewer pitches this year than they have in the past, while another says that many recent pitches have been underdeveloped and not ready to be taken out to market.

Still, the development cycle is changing. Networks have been toying with the idea of breaking out of the traditional pilot model for some time. COVID has definitely given that idea a major push forward.

Many linear networks are now seriously moving into developing projects year-round while also handing out more straight-to-series orders and adopting a script-to-series model. To the latter point, AMC has opened writers’ rooms for multiple projects in the past few years with an eye toward series orders. Fox recently did the same for an untitled country music drama originally put into development last year.

Forgoing pilots and making straight-to-series commitments is something Netflix and other streaming services have relied on heavily, which has also influenced linear networks’ shift in programming strategy.

“Everyone wants to be Netflix,” one agency source says. “Now they are all playing catchup.”

The strategy is a risky one but does have its benefits, especially since broadcasters typically do all their pilot production at the same time of year. The 2020 broadcast pilot season was cut short in March, with virtually none of the pilots ordered by the broadcasters able to complete production. That led to a massive drop-off in the number of orders for the 2020-21 season, with just 15 shows picked up to series compared with 36 the year prior. And while some of the remaining pilots have been able to resume or even finish production, most will either film this fall or have been rolled to next season.

Simran Sethi, executive vice president of development and content strategy for ABC Entertainment, tells Variety that the network isn’t necessarily looking to return to the traditional time frame and has been developing more shows off-cycle for a while.

“We don’t want to be shooting our pilots all at the same time no matter what,” Sethi says. “We’re creating a new path forward in terms of doing things in batches with the best people when things are ready — and that wouldn’t necessarily be during a traditional pilot season.”

But broadcasters are not the only ones feeling the pinch from the production shutdown. Shows like “The Walking Dead,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Succession” were all halted, with many only now getting back underway, with strict health and safety regulations in place.

This has led to premiere dates for major shows being pushed back indefinitely, wreaking havoc with network schedules. Although broadcasters like ABC, CBS, and NBC all planned for business as usual with their scripted shows when they released their fall slates, the reality of the situation has forced them to switch their lineups to mostly unscripted and acquired programming for at least the early part of the season. The plan is to bring back the big-name scripted shows going into October and November, assuming they can safely resume shooting. Programs like ABC’s hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” are expected to begin shooting in Los Angeles in September.

One thing that puts a network like Fox ahead in a moment like this is the network’s focus on developing animated series, given that animation production has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. According to Michael Thorn, president of entertainment for Fox Entertainment, the network is continuing to stock up on animated shows while also making direct deals with well-known creators.

“It’s no secret that we’re growing our animation business,” Thorn says. “Our goal is to own our own animation. Obviously, we bought [animation studio] Bento Box, and we made a deal with Dan Harmon, and there are a few more direct deals to come there. So we’re growing out that slate, and in tandem with that are our direct deals in general. Because we are an independent network, we need to make sure we still have the best pipeline of voices coming into the company.”

ViacomCBS-owned Comedy Central has also begun shifting its development focus to adult animated shows, though it began that strategy prior to the pandemic. The cabler has canceled many of its live-action shows, including “Drunk History” and “Tosh.0,” while prepping animated reboots “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and the “Daria” spinoff “Jodie.”

The one positive in all this disruption is that it has given studios and networks something they often lack: time. Many networks have commissioned writers on their current projects to begin working ahead on scripts in the interim between the shutdown and the resumption of production. That way, “all the ducks will be in a row” when it comes time to get back into the swing of things, one executive says.