With just two months to go before networks unveil their fall TV offerings to Madison Avenue during their annual upfronts presentations, broadcast pilot orders have fallen to perhaps the lowest level in decades. Fox isn’t even producing a pilot at this point, having passed on the only one it had in contention.
So far, the five broadcast networks have ordered 35 pilots — some of them holdovers from last season. High-profile projects involving “This Is Us” stars, a Hilary Swank offering and a sequel to “Quantum Leap” are among the mix, but the tally is running more than 20% behind the 45 broadcast pilot orders last year and well below the 60 ordered in 2020.
Even allowing for projects that have been ordered straight to series — such as David E. Kelley’s upcoming “Avalon” murder mystery for ABC — that’s a notable drop. And the pandemic is only partly to blame.
Networks were already moving toward year-round development before COVID-19 accelerated the trend. At Fox, execs have been toying with the idea of moving away from a traditional pilot season for quite some time. “Creativity doesn’t work on a pre-ordained schedule, and because of that we no longer feel the need to employ a one-size-fits-all approach to our development,” says Fox entertainment president Michael Thorn. “While we will occasionally still order a traditional pilot, we’re increasingly committing to more script or straight-to-series orders; and our next wave of shows represents that strategy.”
Those shows include “Accused,” based on a British format, with Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and David Shore as writers; and animated “Krapopolis,” from Dan Harmon, and “Grimsburg,” with Jon Hamm as a misanthropic detective.
Adding to the shift away from broadcast pilots: There are more TV shows than ever outside the big five networks, and the pandemic has increased production costs.
“It’s a question of diminishing returns and then diminished attention from us,” one TV lit agent tells Variety. “These shows are losing ratings every year, and the volume keeps dropping. So why would we invest a lot of our time and our clients’ time in them?”
Yet there’s still plenty of money to be made in broadcast, given seasons that exceed 20 episodes. Streaming shows, by contrast, typically run half that number, which also means half the paycheck.
“Until people figure out how to get the same kind of money out of streamers that they can from broadcast, I will not discourage my clients from doing a broadcast show,” a talent agent observes. “You never know when you’re going to get a hit like ‘Abbott Elementary’ or ‘Ghosts,’ and if you do, it’s off to the races.”
According to Lisa Katz, president of scripted content for NBCUniversal, broadcast is still an important part of the company’s strategy, but they must now look at the TV landscape holistically when considering pilot orders.
“Because my team oversees multiple platforms, we’re basically hearing content year round and then finding the best home for the content based on what opportunities we have on the platform,” Katz says. “This season in particular, we’re still shooting the same number of pilots we did in the before times, but we’re shooting them not all at once. They’re more spread out, so we’re able to to be a little more flexible in terms of the timing and the scheduling.”
ABC’s pilot orders include two projects for “This Is Us” stars — Chris Sullivan and Milo Ventimiglia — and a follow-up to “L.A. Law” with multiple original cast members returning; Swank will star in a pilot set at an Alaskan newspaper.
CBS has ordered its own project with a “This Is Us” star, Justin Hartley, although it has been pushed off-cycle due to scheduling issues. The Eye is also working on a reboot of “Early Edition,” which has gotten positive buzz in the early going.
NBC’s “Quantum Leap” sequel series joins “Lopez vs. Lopez,” with George Lopez and his daughter Mayan, while “Hungry” centers on a food issues support group with “Modern Family” alum Ariel Winter in a role that Demi Lovato had been attached to play.
The CW has ordered three pilots, including a “Supernatural” prequel, and a prequel to its “Walker, Texas Ranger” reboot with Jared Padalecki. Its decisions may be impacted by the looming sale of a majority stake in the network to Nexstar Media Group.
There are still two months left until the May upfronts, which means nothing is guaranteed — except, perhaps, the likelihood that a “This Is Us” star will be back on TV next season.