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Networks keeping comedy pilots in the family

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Still early into the comedy pilot process for the 2002-03 season, the broadcast networks appear to have an increasing appetite for keeping series projects in-house.
Of the 36 or so comedies firmed up for pilot production as of deadline last week, 27 (or 75 percent) of the sitcom projects are either from in-house production units, sister studios or part of a co-production with an outside studio.
Leading the in-house parade is ABC, with all nine of its comedy pickups coming from its Disney-owned sister studio Touchstone Television. The WB Network has also firmed up 10 comedy pickups, eight of those coming from either its newly formed Turner Television production unit or Warner Bros. Television.
“We are going to see that in-house involvement continuing to grow because [the networks] desperately need to control costs, but I don’t think it will ultimately dictate what [are] the best shows to fit their scheduling needs,” said Bob Levinson, a series packager at International Creative Management.
NBC, though lacking a vertical ownership link to an old-line Hollywood studio, nevertheless has eight of its 10 comedy pilots placed through NBC Studios as a sole producer or co-production partner. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker is also turning to past New York associations and friendships-he was executive producer of NBC’s New York-based “Today Show”-to develop for prime-time projects.
“[We] saw this as a chance to do comedies on the cutting edge, where we have this fantastic laboratory with people like Lorne Michaels and Conan O’Brien,” said Karey Burke, NBC Entertainment’s executive VP of prime-time series development.
While NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa has acknowledged that NBC was not in the business of actively developing sitcoms with kids, Ms. Burke said NBC is looking to develop “all-family” sitcoms like “Hidden Hills” and the untitled Chase Chase project, both of which feature younger offspring.
Ms. Burke confirmed that the family projects could be in contention for one of NBC’s few Achilles’ heels at 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday nights. “We are looking for shows this year that could have big, broad, inviting concepts that are not as conceptually narrow as we’ve tried in the past,” she said.
Despite what happens with ongoing negotiations to renew “Friends” for next season, NBC is again focused on developing young-adult comedies that could fit with established set pieces such as “Will & Grace” and “Frasier.”
“I don’t think any new show could just come in and replace `Friends,’ but something that it could be [is] putting [in] the building blocks for the next `Friends’ down the road,” she said.
It is widely rumored that each of “Friends”’ half-dozen co-stars is seeking $1 million to $1.2 million per episode, which could eclipse the show’s current $5.8 million per episode license fee next season.
Meanwhile, CBS, which has confirmed five comedy pickups, looks to be the only network fielding projects from a variety of outside studio sources. To date, only one comedy project-the Nathan Lane-led “Life of the Party”-has CBS Productions listed as a co-production partner.

However, once the pilots are screened in April, agency sources suggested CBS-like the other networks-will make its fall 2002 series orders contingent upon negotiating some kind of major ownership stake in outside-produced shows.
Similarly, much is still in negotiations for Fox, which has only a pair of confirmed pilot pickups, with its untitled Ricky Blitt project representing the only current in-house deal with 20th Century Fox Television.
UPN has yet to formalize any comedy pilot pickups. Representatives for UPN declined to identify any comedies that remain active on the development list.