Running The Show

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Never underestimate the power of a visual, even when it involves alcohol.
When Linda Wallem was pitching her Midwestern family sitcom idea to broadcast network executives, alcohol turned out to be the perfect way to make her point.
“I have 12 characters and I didn’t know how to make it clear to them so I took in little bottles of alcohol representing each family [in the show],” she said. “The one family who drank a lot and were the partiers had the little bottles of vodka. My family was the 12-ounce and 6-ounce cans of Miller Lite. The Italians were little bottles of wine. I went in and did this and I think every network went, `She’s insane, let’s do this show.”’
CBS, ABC and Fox all wanted the show, based on Ms. Wallem’s life, about three families who live in a cul-de-sac in Green Bay, Wis., and are die-hard Green Bay Packers fans. Fox ended up buying the pilot.
“The climate is different this year,” said Ms. Wallem, who co-created last year’s “That ’80s Show.” “For all of us who have been doing this for a long time, there is a feeling of no more messing around,” she said. “People used to get these huge development deals and nothing happened. Now it’s, OK, you better really believe in your idea and be passionate about it. It feels like a bit of a wake-up call for a lot of writers.”
With reality television riding a hot streak and numerous very expensive scripted freshman series flopping, overall development deals for writers with a hit show or two under their belt are no longer the norm. Studio executives and writers alike say this year shows are being ordered based on merit vs. vertical integration or big-name talent alone.
“In a climate where so few shows are really resonating with the audiences, networks have to look to the quality of their pilots and pick the shows they think have the qualities to turn into successful series and be less concerned with the auspices the pilot came from,” said 20th Century Fox Television President Gary Newman.
Writers and showrunners say it is much harder to sell a show in the current climate, when networks are attracting young demo ratings with cheaper reality programming, leaving fewer time slots to be filled with scripted shows. And they all know talented writers who are out of work.
“There is a nervousness with everybody,” Ms. Wallem said. “Everybody has an immense guilt that they like these [reality] shows. We know that might be knocking us out of work.”
“It’s definitely harder,” said Greg Malins, a former executive producer of “Friends.” “The jobs are so few and far between. There’s more really talented people [out there] and less jobs. I always say if this reality TV actually makes us all unemployed, the good news is there’s great stuff to watch on TV when you’re unemployed.”
While traditional family comedies and crime dramas are littered throughout the networks’ pilot slates this year, some writers have found networks willing to take a few chances on different concepts.
Dan Angel and Billy Brown pitched an idea about an anthropologist couple who discover an ancient jar that accidentally breaks and releases a Pandora’s box full of mythological demons and monsters. “We pitched it to The WB and they bought it in the room-to our thrill,” Mr. Angel said of their pilot “Shadow Walkers.”
“Financially, it’s a very tough marketplace for scripted material,” Mr. Brown said. “I think we just had something that there’s probably not going to be anything really like it on television. The WB tends to be a little more adventuresome.”
Feature film writer Gary Scott Thompson, who wrote “The Fast and the Furious,” was lured to television by a concept NBC was shopping around for-a Las Vegas drama. Mr. Thompson, a self-proclaimed TV addict, had a few offers for shows from other studios and networks when he hooked up with DreamWorks and NBC Studios and came up with the idea to write a Vegas-based show around a casino security expert.
“The idea is to feature the whole town when we go to series,” Mr. Thomspon said. “It’s the biggest boomtown in the United States. There’s 125,000 hotel rooms in the city. That makes potentially 125,000 stories every week.”
If the pilot goes to series, Mr. Thompson said, all of it would be shot in Vegas, making it the first series shot entirely on location there (CBS’s “CSI” films most of its scenes on a Los Angeles soundstage, while FX’s new series “Lucky” is only partially filmed on location in Vegas.).
They’re currently trying to close a deal with a Vegas casino to serve as a major set in the show, he said.
Mr. Malins said he thought NBC, which picked up his sitcom pilot “Come to Papa,” was trying a few more offbeat pilots and looking for shows with strong points of view. Comedian Tom Papa was interested in creating a show based on his stand-up routine, but he needed a writer with his same sensibility. Enter Mr. Malins.
“Our lives were just so similar,” Mr. Malins said. “We were born two weeks apart. Our high school experiences were exactly the same. We’re both married. We both just had a baby. We knew right away it was the perfect fit.”
Since NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker had already discovered Mr. Papa’s stand-up routine, the network was an obvious choice to pitch and subsequently bought the show.
“Having the talent or star of your show attached from the beginning is a huge difference,” Mr. Malins said. “I wrote the script with the guy who is starring in the show. It helps you vault in front of people because the casting process is really different. It makes people being able to visualize your show so much easier.”
One type of show networks haven’t been biting on this year-perhaps because of the failure of ABC’s “MDs” and CBS’s “Presidio Med”-is the hospital drama or medical show.
Samantha Corbin, who had previously written for “The Practice” and “Crossing Jordan” pitched a hospital show to ABC and CBS.
She said CBS called a couple of days later to pass on the hospital show. “I was crushed for about five seconds, and then they said, but if you can figure out a new twist on the idea of `Cagney & Lacey’ we’d love to have you come back in and pitch that.”
She went back in to pitch “Violent Crimes,” a character-based drama about two female detectives, and sold it to the network. “I walked in with a hospital,” she said, “and ended up with a precinct.”