Like virtually all aspects of the entertainment industry, the volume of broadcast series orders took a massive hit this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic shut down the traditional pilot season, with almost no pilots completing production. But now with the broadcast networks making their series orders for the 2020-2021 season, the true impact is taking shape.
At the time of publication, 15 new shows have been picked up for next season across the five networks. That represents a dropoff of 58% from the 36 new shows ordered in 2019 and 2018.
The number of new broadcast show orders has been trending downward for some time, but a drop of this magnitude is staggering. (For context, just five years ago in 2015 the number of broadcast series ordered was 49.) And as has been tradition for the past several years, major stars and well-known IP drove the majority of pickups.
Along with this drop in series orders comes changes to the fall schedule as well. NBC, CBS, and ABC have all released schedules assuming production will be able to resume before the fall. Fox and The CW have released fall schedules that rely heavily on acquired programming and holding shows meant for this season until September, while planning to release most of their scripted originals starting in early 2021.
Networks and studios have for some time been looking to disrupt the traditional pilot-season cycle. ABC practices what it now calls second cycle, in which the network develops shows year round. NBC also announced recently they will film several of their pilots from this year off cycle for potential pick ups.
So the question then becomes will this year be a blip on the radar or the new normal for the broadcasters?
“I think the industry isn’t going to know what works and what doesn’t work until we get to the other side of this,” says Kevin Levy, executive vice president of program planning, scheduling and acquisitions at The CW. “So, we’re all working our way through it. It has certainly given us an opportunity to evaluate the traditional way of doing business and affords us a chance to experiment with some new things. I’m sure there will be some efficiencies we discover through this process but we’re still in the early stages of it.”
Two other TV executives who spoke with Variety echoed Levy’s comments. They both said they expect shooting things outside the pilot season window and more straight-to-series orders to become the norm, with the pandemic giving change an unexpected push forward.
The CW was the only network that actually saw its number of series orders increase year-to-year. The network picked up four shows for next season compared to last year’s three. Among the new shows were Jared Padalecki’s reboot of “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Superman & Lois,” both of which were ordered straight-to-series before the pandemic hit. The other two are “Republic of Sarah” and a reboot of “Kung Fu.”
Fox saw the heaviest drop off year-to-year, picking up three shows this year versus 10 last year. Fox gave an early commitment to “Call Me Kat” starring “Big Bang Theory” alum Mayim Bialik with Jim Parsons executive producing. Elsewhere, Fox had already given out series orders to the animated comedies “The Great North” and “Housebroken” ahead of the pandemic.
ABC ordered just two shows this year — the drama “Big Sky” from David E. Kelley and comedy “Call Your Mother” from Kari Lizer with Kyra Sedgwick starring. “Big Sky” was ordered straight-to-series before the shutdown. Last year ABC ordered six new series..
CBS has picked up three shows this year, with the network having ordered eight last year. This year’s pickups are the “Equalizer” reboot starring Queen Latifah, the Clarice Starling series from Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, and the Chuck Lorre multi-cam “B Positive.” “B Positive” was the only pilot that completed filming before the shutdown.
NBC went from nine orders last year to three this year. It should be noted though that one of the nine last year was “Law & Order: Hate Crimes,” which was shelved at the network, while another was “The Kenan Show,” which was rolled to the 2020-2021 season. This year, NBC picked up the comedies “Young Rock” and “Mr. Mayor” ahead of the shutdown, while “Law & Order: Organized Crime” was picked up right after the shutdown started. According to sources, NBC could also pick up the drama pilot “Debris,” with negotiations currently ongoing.
With increased competition from cable and streaming not slowing up any time soon, and people under quarantine desperate for fresh content, the broadcasters find themselves at a crossroads the likes of which the entertainment industry has never seen.