Nets narrow down pilot choices

May 7, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A week before their upfront presentation, NBC programming brass appear to have given an early thumbs up to a handful of sitcoms and at least four drama pilots through marathon screening sessions last week in Burbank, Calif.

According to talent agency and NBC insiders, serious comedy contenders include “Scrubs,” “Inside Schwartz,” “Leap of Faith,” “Second to None,” “What Are You Thinking?” and “Bliss.” Drama pilots getting good early buzz include “Crossing Jordan,” “U.C.,” “Watching the Detectives” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which already has a 13-episode order for the fall.

NBC Entertainment President Jeffrey Zucker said his first priority is improving NBC’s Sunday through Tuesday prime-time rotations for next fall.

“Sunday through Tuesdays, particularly in the 8 to 10 o’clock time periods, is something we need to work on addressing aggressively,” said Mr. Zucker, talking between morning screenings last week. “From Wednesday to Fridays, we have some real strengths to work off and other springboards on Monday [“The Weakest Link”] and Tuesday [“Frasier”] to protect some new shows we’re looking at nurturing.”

With “3rd Rock From the Sun” departing and faltering ratings for midseason comedy “The Fighting Fitzgeralds,” NBC is focusing on filling its comedy holes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Early contenders for those spots include:

* “Scrubs” (a Touchstone Television production from “Spin City” creator Bill Lawrence), an ensemble comedy about a group of medical interns being highly touted in Peacock circles as fitting the mold of smart, upscale sitcoms such as “Friends” and “Frasier.”

* “Leap of Faith” (NBC Studios, executive-produced by Jenny Bicks), which features a young woman (Gretchen Egoff) who re-examines her life after a premarital fling. According to one talent agency source who is not connected to the show, “Leap of Faith,” which features a young ensemble cast including “Beverly Hills, 90210’s” Brian Austin Green, is being considered as a lead-out companion piece to Thursday’s “Friends” or “Will & Grace” staples.

* “Inside Schwartz” (executive-produced by Steven Engel), about a sports fanatic, Adam Schwartz, who seeks advice on love and dating from various sports stars.

* “Second to None” (executive-produced by Paula Marshall, Betsy Thomas and Paul Reiser), a comedy about two divorcees who optimistically approach love.

* “Bliss,” featuring stand-up comedian Debi Gutierrez as a Latina teacher who tries to balance a career with a husband and kids.

* “What Are You Thinking?,” which centers on a married comedy writer, played by Hank Azaria, who works on a late-night TV show.

Mr. Zucker said he is not looking to dramatically change course on the Peacock’s longtime programming strategy.

“We want to continue to be an adult 18 to 54 network that appeals to both women and men,” Mr. Zucker said. “We want to reach a broad spectrum of demos because we are a broadcaster and we don’t want to niche ourselves into any corners.”

Still, some talent agency sources say NBC may be taking a second look at “Everything But the Girl,” about four single guys who can only claim the friendship of two girls, from longtime “Saturday Night Live” scribe Steven Koren and NBC Studios. Another possible player with a shot to make the schedule for fall or midseason is “Last Dance,” about a firefighter who falls in love with a movie starlet during an alcohol rehab stint, from “Dharma & Greg” show runner Chuck Lorre.

One project that may not see the light of day is the untitled Sisqo project. In a bit of “Odd Couple”-like casting that apparently did not gel, veteran sitcom star Bob Newhart announced his exit after shooting the pilot, but there could be attempts to pair rapper Sisqo with another known commodity.

On the drama front, things look somewhat less complicated, with four or five dramas potentially making the cut for the fall schedule. Shooting on a 13-episode order of Dick Wolf and Studios USA’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” ends June 20, just in advance of a potential Screen Actors Guild strike, with the spinoff being considered by buyers as a possible 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. (ET) Sunday tentpole in place of a Sunday movie showcase.

NBC is also believed to be looking for a Monday 9 p.m. drama to lead out of “Weakest Link.” Getting the strongest early buzz in Burbank is “Crossing Jordan,” an “Erin Brockovich”-like, no-nonsense drama about a Boston coroner played by Jill Hennessy.

Other dramas on the front burners are “Watching the Detectives” (formerly “Spy Girl”), starring Jennie Garth, and “U.C.,” about an elite LAPD unit from Danny Devito’s Jersey TV and 20th Century Fox TV.

Over at ABC, executives were halfway through pilot screenings last week.

According to an ABC insider, topping the list of “laugh-out-loud” comedies was behind-the-scenes network comedy “The Web,” which comes from Peter Tolan, the creator and executive producer of ABC’s critically received midseason comedy “The Job.” Other comedies said to have good early buzz were the Jason Alexander-led “Bob Patterson”; “Born in Brooklyn,” starring Isaac Mizrahi and Judith Light; and “Mark of Greatness,” about a male grade-school teacher who moonlights as a daredevil stuntman.

On the drama side, ABC had only screened a pair of series. “Philly,” a legal drama coming from the “NYPD Blue” talent-producing team of Kim Delaney and Steven Bochco, is considered a sure thing to make ABC’s schedule. “Alias,” a spy drama from “Felicity” creator J.J. Abrams and Touchstone Television, is said to have scored high with ABC programmers.

According to a Hollywood TV network packager, “Thieves,” starring John Stamos and Melissa George as government-hired agents, tested out as “one of the highest scoring drama pilots of the year.” However, Supreme Court drama “The Court,” with Sally Field, is said to have skewed a bit “too old” and started reshooting last week.

As far as the other networks, CBS was also reportedly midway through pilot screenings, and sources say they are high on drama “Education of Max Bickford” and sitcoms “Blind Men,” “Late Bloomers” and “Baby Bob.”

Officials at Fox, The WB and UPN said their screenings wouldn’t begin in earnest until this week. However, agency sources said likely series pickups for the WB include sitcoms “Cedric the Coach,” “The Young Persons Guide to Becoming a Rock Star,” “Maybe I’m Adopted,” “Off Centre,” “Men, Women and Dogs” and dramas “Smallville” and “Glory Days.”

UPN is said to be seriously considering dramas “The Dead Zone,” a revival of “Battlestar Gllactica” and “Star Trek” prequel “Enterprise.”

And Fox is said to be close to picking up drama “Emma Brody” and comedies “Andy Richter Controls The Universe” and “The Bernie Mac Show, “ in addition to already making a 13-episode commitment to “Greg the Bunny.”