Keeping track of the story Lyne

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In an unusual request from a network executive, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne is asking writer-producers who are developing pilots at the network to pen treatments for the next four to 12 episodes of their series.
Ms. Lyne, who is participating in the development season as the network’s head programmer for the first time, has ordered a network-high 29 pilots for production (16 comedies, 13 dramas) and is looking to fill scheduling gaps across virtually all seven nights of the network’s sagging prime-time lineup. At informal pre-upfront advertiser presentations in New York this month, Ms. Lyne, who previously oversaw long-form programming at ABC, has made a point of noting the network is “placing the focus on writing,” requiring more flushed-out long-term story lines on series, say media-buying sources.
“I was just so happy to hear that Susan has asked producers to supply the story lines for the first 13 episodes,” said Roy Rothstein, Zenith Media VP/director of national broadcast research. “With some promising pilots, the bloom comes off the rose [after] a couple of episodes.
“To me, I sometimes want to know where the story is going and what is going to happen on a show before telling a buyer to commit to a show,” Mr. Rothstein added. “Susan seems like a smart and discerning creative executive who wants to make sure the story line follows in a logical course with the show’s premise.”
One veteran ABC executive, who requested anonymity, said that in the past the network had been “occasionally seduced” by the strength of a pilot only to find it did not execute on the character development and story lines deeper into a show’s episodic run. TV critics found that to be the case on several high-profile ABC series that did not live up to early expectations as they got deeper into their runs, such as with the sitcom “Bob Patterson” and the drama “Thieves.”
The ABC source said J.J. Abrams, executive producer and show runner of the network’s highly rated freshman drama “Alias,” may have been the impetus behind Ms. Lyne’s request-he outlined treatments for all 22 episodes of the show this season.
“We don’t want fully blown scripts but just outlines of where the show is going and how the character development will shake out,” the source said. “It just provides us with a more accurate road map of where these shows are going and gives us and advertisers further justification in committing to the show.”
Taking into account that the networks typically invest $800,000 to just over $2 million for scripted comedy and drama pilots, ABC is not alone in wanting more than a single show on which to base a pickup decision.
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker is requiring all its pilot show runners to deliver completed second-episode scripts simultaneously with final-edit pilots. Delivery of finished pilots and scripts is scheduled for this week.
Even shows from proven show runners aren’t exempt from the request. Rich Appel (“King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons”) was putting the wraps on his new legal comedy “A.U.S.A.’s” edit late last week while turning in a first-draft script of the second episode. “Miss Miami,” from “Will & Grace” show runners Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, similarly delivered the pilot and second-episode script-on top of the fact that the sitcom already has a 13-episode commitment from NBC.
“It just gets down to brass tacks, where so much is being expended on pilots and there being so few time slot opportunities for success-there is such less tolerance for failures off the bat,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of TVtracker.com, an Internet-based research company. “The name of the game is getting the shows on the air, but the endgame is not just shooting the pilot anymore. It’s making sure these shows have direction and long-term staying power.”
Other networks are finding their own pressures in the pilot process. Because CBS came in a bit later into the comedy development process, it is having trouble casting for some sitcoms because so much veteran acting talent is already attached to projects at other networks.
Last week, CBS decided to push development of “Lunchbox Chronicles” (from show runner Bill Diamond and Studios USA) to midseason for a potential early 2003 debut. Additionally, an untitled Jeff Strauss (“Reba,” “Friends”) family sitcom from 20th Century Fox Television was pushed back to midseason. Earlier this month, “Grown Men,” a divorced-father comedy from Rob Greenberg (“Becker,” “Frasier”) and Warner Bros. was also shelved for consideration next year.
However, CBS has placed a higher premium on drama development, with 11 drama pilots already being commissioned and cast. A CBS spokesman wouldn’t comment on the pilot process and said the network would announce its 2002-03 season prime-time lineup at its upfront presentation May 15.