TV networks cut back on development

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

As advertising sales remain stagnant, the broadcast networks are paring back prime-time program development for the 2002-03 season-in both comedy and drama-with commitments to about one-quarter fewer scripts than at this time last year.
Through late last week, officials at TVtracker.com, an Internet-based TV development and research service, were estimating that series development at the six major broadcast networks was tracking 26 percent below last year. With development almost wrapped up for dramas (213 scripts) and more than three-quarters done in comedy (182 scripts), the networks are just short of making 400 script commitments to date-compared with about 535 scripts for the 2001-02 season.
“With the way the economy is, overall series development could be down somewhat from last year,” said Carolyn Finger, vice president and partner in TVtracker.com. “But the networks still can make [script] pickups into February or March in advance of beginning shooting [pilots] as late as April.”
CBS continues to be the most aggressive in its development of new comedies and dramas, although it is said to have pared back development of the latter by 33 percent from last year. The WB is the only network expanding on the previous year in comedy development. Despite a historic emphasis on dramas, the WB also has pared back the genre by one-third from last year. Also on the drama front, ABC is even with last year’s script commitments. But the network has cut comedy development by one-third to date compared with last year.
The slower pace of program development for the 2002-03 season comes as the vertically integrated network/studios are still absorbing the loss of more than $1 billion in advertising sales from the fourth-quarter 2001 upfront market. And next year is not looking any better, judging from industry projections. Once the vetting process begins in earnest early next year, some industry watchers wonder whether the networks will significantly decrease the number of pilot orders for production this spring.
Adding to concerns about further contraction of the development process is the status of future series development at soon-to-be-shuttered Columbia TriStar Television. The Sony-owned studio has exclusive talent deals with such major series producers as Brad Grey Television, Pariah Productions, Mark Johnson Productions and Jersey Television-all of whom are awaiting word on the fate of their own development slates.
“They have still not said a word about what is going on from a forward-looking basis, but Columbia TriStar remains tied to my projects until I hear otherwise,” said Pariah founder and owner Gavin Polone, who as recently as last week received a script order (along with Columbia TriStar) from The WB Network for a revival of “Family Affair.”
Mr. Polone said he has 15 series projects-10 dramas and five comedies-in development for the broadcast and cable networks. Brad Grey TV, the current producer of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and NBC’s “Spin City,” is estimated to have about 16 scripts being mulled, including two Sylvester Stallone dramas (one in which he would star as a former Army priest for CBS). Jersey Television, current co-producer of NBC’s “UC: Undercover” and Fox’s midseason “Emma Brody” drama, is said to have a dozen script commitments. Mark Johnson Productions, co-producer of CBS’s “The Guardian,” has a little more than a half-dozen script commitments from the networks.
One network TV packager at a prestigious Hollywood agency, who requested anonymity, said word around town is that Columbia TriStar has told its 50 to 70 mid- and senior-level network staffers-previously identified for layoffs-that this week will be their last. It was not immediately known whether Tom Mazza and Len Grossi, presidents of Columbia TriStar Televsion, will remain to oversee the transition of the network TV department to longtime syndication heads Steve Mosko and Russ Krasnoff.
“Right now it appears that Columbia TriStar would not be empowered to sell off any of their participation in script projects [to the networks and studios] until they know what is going to get formal orders for pilots,” said the agency source. “From there, they have a jumping-out point to try to settle matters with the networks and their producers.”