Drama development off for ’02

Sep 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The broadcast networks, faced with a sluggish ad market, are significantly paring back their preliminary commitments to drama development for the 2002-03 season.
According to sources and Internet-based program research company TVtracker.com, the six broadcast networks have a little more than 80 drama series in various stages of development for the 2002-03 season-about half the number that were being mulled at this time last year.
For a genre that has been on a major upswing the last several seasons, the slower trickle of projects could be emblematic of a growing movement to streamline overall program development budgets at the behest of the entertainment divisions’ corporate parents.
“There is no doubt that script commitments and talent-holding deals are down by about half of where they were this time last year,” said Gavin Polone, whose Pariah Productions has four drama pilots with network commitments. “Actually, that can also be seen as a positive trend, because it could mean that the networks marshal more of their resources, energy and focus toward a more streamlined development process.”
Production sources say NBC in particular has come under pressure to trim its entertainment-related programming costs-possibly in light of the Peacock Network
offering aggressive discounting of its commercial inventory during last spring’s upfront ad market. All told, the six broadcast networks are estimated to have lost $1 billion, or 13 percent, from last season’s nearly $8 billion ad market.
“It is true that the development process started later this year, because it appeared all of the networks were rocked by the sluggish ad market,” said a Hollywood agency TV department head, who asked for anonymity. “But when it is all said and done, development could still be comparable to last year. One of the most notable things to me is that all of the networks have shied away from the big overall talent deals, which may be a good thing because none of them has really paid off well in recent years.”
Some of those “talent-holding” deals have lead to such star-vehicle flops as CBS’s Bette Midler- and NBC’s Michael Richards-led sitcoms.
Nevertheless, CBS appears to be most active on the drama development front, with 22 dramas so far getting a variety of script and “put” pilot commitments, including Mr. Polone and Columbia TriStar’s cop-turned-taxi driver crime-stopper concept from noted screenwriter David Koepp.
Jay Sures, co-head of the TV department and partner at United Talent Agency, said by the time CBS is done making drama script commitments, the number will total close to 50.
CBS also still has talent-holding deals, which attach stars to often vague or blind drama concepts, with stars such as Alfred Molina (most recently of CBS’s stalled “Ladies Man” comedy), John Leguizamo and Oliver Platt waiting in the wings at the Eye Network.
NBC is developing roughly 16 dramas but has jump-started development of at least a half-dozen alternative/reality series-where the network was virtually dormant this time last year. The Peacock has a number of active, front-burner reality series, including “Dog Eat Dog,” “Trial & Error” and “Destination Space,” being touted for 2001-02 midseason or 2002-03 season starts. The new reality push comes in light of NBC’s success this summer with “Fear Factor” and “Spy TV,” which also figure prominently as chess pieces to return to the network’s midseason schedule.
“It could be viewed as a reflection of NBC’s ongoing early success in reality, but it also signifies the network’s shifting of resources more toward cheaper, cost-effective limited-run series than the more expensive scripted long-form series,” said a veteran Hollywood network agency packager who requested anonymity. “Certainly, Jeff Gaspin [NBC’s executive vice president of alternative programming] is one of the busiest, most popular network guys in town right now. [Alternative] just makes more sense right now-on a cost-reward ratio-to go that route.”
Along with alternative/reality programming, NBC is focusing on comedy development, Mr. Sures said. Only about seven or eight dramas are expected to get pilot orders, he said, while the network is looking to pick up about 10 sitcoms (up from eight this year). He said it looks as though NBC will develop close to 20 comedies.
Meanwhile, Fox and The WB Network are said to each have 15 or 16 dramas in various stages of development. ABC has fewer than a half-dozen dramas being mulled, with a TV adaptation of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (from Touchstone Television and Hyde Park Productions) and a NASA-based space drama (from 20th Century Fox TV) getting notable early script commitments. ABC’s lean drama slate could also be in converse reaction to its aggressive development of eight alternative series.
This early into the 2002-03 development season, studio and producer pitches on dramas are not expected to reach maturation until October-a full month later than last year. On the other hand, pitches on short-form comedies and alternative series are still trickling in and probably won’t kick in until late October.
However, projects backed by major advertisers have been quickly embraced early on by the networks.
The WB has been particularly aggressive on that front, with shoe giant Nike backing an untitled women’s basketball drama (described as the female version of “The White Shadow”) being considered in light of its deal with Ford Motor Co. to back the already slated midseason reality show “No Boundaries.”
Mr. Polone also said he has an unnamed major advertiser tied in with a drama he has in development but declined to divulge further details.
Creative Artists Agency has gained an open door at the networks by representing agency holding company Omnicom’s roster of clients in pre-packaging of ABC’s “The Runner” as well as a series produced by Jennifer Lopez (at NBC) and Dixie Chicks music specials (Lifetime).
“Certainly, given the tightness of the ad market, one of the hottest trends in development has been the networks’ acceptance of advertisers being involved at the earliest stages of the creative process,” said Mark Hoebich, president and CEO of TVtracker.com. “Even though the advertisers have been a lot more selective about their buys this season, they are taking a very proactive role in shaping the creation and overall direction of series because they feel they need to get their message out in a more focused way in this ever-fractionalizing television universe.”
Carolyn Finger, a partner in TVtracker.com, also stressed that it does not mean advertisers are looking to get product placement figured prominently in the development of series.
“If you look at the new generation of consumers, they are very aware and very savvy that they are being sold to, and that presents a real challenge when it comes to successfully integrating product placement in new series and walking that fine line with legitimate creative content,” she said. “I’ve heard from people [outside the TV industry] who’ve told me they don’t want their favorite dramas or comedies to look like they always take place in hockey rinks-laden with advertising messages and icons.”