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Scripted Series: Never Say Die

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Reality television is the buzz word of late, but here’s another reality: Broadcast networks are ordering just as many pilots and spending as much money on scripted development as they have in years past.
“There was some fear that with the success of unscripted programming that maybe there would be fewer pilots ordered, and it wasn’t the case,” said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television.
NBC has even ordered more pilots to date than it has in the past, said JoAnn Alfano, senior VP of comedy development at NBC Entertainment. “We need to take the shots and try to find what’s the next thing that’s going to connect with the audience. A lot of people come from the point of view of let’s do less and stick with just reality. We don’t want to get caught with our pants down.”
Providing an Alternative
That’s a common refrain among network executives. ABC isn’t cutting back either. ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said the network has ordered 12 drama pilots plus a 13-episode drama script order and plans to order 12 comedy pilots. “We’re not backing off scripted development at all,” she said.
At The WB, which has built its brand on serialized character-driven hour-long dramas, they see even more opportunity in scripted programming. “I see the proliferation of reality on other networks as a real opportunity for us to provide an alternative,” said Carolyn Bernstein, senior VP of drama development for The WB. “[It’s] an alternative viewers can get hooked into on an emotional level and not feel like it’s a wasted investment because it’s only eight episodes or six episodes or 10 episodes. If you fall in love with “Tarzan” [a current pilot] on the fall schedule next year, he’s not leaving, we promise.”
On the studio side, executives agree that the broadcast networks still have a huge appetite to create successful scripted programming, which has a more lucrative return in the long run financially-through repeats and syndication-and when it comes to building viewer loyalty.
Several networks are moving closer to a 52-week-a year schedule and will need scripted programming to anchor year-round. NBC plans to air 60 percent of its schedule this summer with original programming, including at least one scripted drama and one comedy, while Fox plans to move up the start of its season to the middle of the summer and will need more series to fill in the holes later in the year.
Reality Plateauing
And many studio executives said they think the reality phase is cyclical and nearing the end of its course. “I think there is a real danger at the networks right now,” said Touchstone Television President Steve McPherson “This reality craze sets you up for the [`Who Wants to Be a] Millionaire’ kind of circumstance that ABC faced, which is you have no repeats of these things at all and you basically take off the air any kind of pattern of behavior for viewership on scripted programming.
“I’m actually encouraged for scripted programming. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of room for them as we get to the end of this wave, and I think we’re getting close.”
In the past few years, no scripted show has really broken out of the pack into instant hit status except “CSI: Miami,” which benefited from being a spinoff of “CSI,” the most-watched show on television. This season, very few freshman series are shoo-ins for renewal, with a large number of them sitting on the bubble.
Despite that poor track record, studio executives said networks still aren’t taking a ton of risks on programming that’s radically different or edgy when picking up pilots for this fall.
“There’s much to admire and a lot of originality in the this year’s pilot scripts,” said Sarah Timberman, president of programming at Universal Network Television. “But I think the jury is still out as to whether next year will see many enormously risk-taking new shows-the rare “water cooler” shows that represent a profound break from traditional successes. The reality boom seems to suggest that audiences are open to that.”
Freshening the Franchise
Instead, she said that many of the new pilots this season attempt to find a fresh interpretation or unique point of view within a comfortable franchise. For example, Universal is developing “Century City” for CBS-it’s a legal drama, but it’s set at a law firm 50 years in the future.
Ms. Alfano said, however, NBC has been trying to cut as wide a swath as possible with its pickups. “There are a number of projects we bought that people wouldn’t automatically say that’s an NBC show,” she said. “One of the things we were conscious of not doing was almost narrowing our own brand and just doing young-adult comedies.”
One of NBC’s more off-the-wall sitcom pickups is the DreamWorks/NBC Studios show “The Ripples” about a family that never ages. It examines the life of a couple who has been married for 4,000 years and has a son who looks like he’s 15, but is really 3,985 years old.
“You have to take a risk because ultimately if you play the same game and play the same cards every time, you know what your hand is going to be,” she said. “For those of us in the scripted business, this is the easiest time to be able to look your boss in the eye and say, `This is different. I really want to do this.”’
Mr. McPherson said networks were a little more targeted this year, developing with specific goals in mind. “Budgets across the board in every department are pretty tight in whatever network you are dealing with,” he said. “By that you are forced to be more selective.”
In the current economic climate, networks and studios are also more willing to say no to projects that are deemed too expensive.
Bring the Best
20th’s Mr. Newman said networks and studios have been more collaborative in solving their mutual problems this year. “For production companies, the business is really hard right now, and I think that the network involvement in the production side of the business through their in-house division has actually created greater sensitivity,” he said. “The license fee negotiations we’re having, the budget negotiations, the decisions about how many elements to layer on these shows are better conversations than they’ve ever been in the past because networks, having now lived for two or three years trying to mount these shows and seeing how expensive and challenging it is, they understand studio problems more and are more amenable to collaborating to resolve them in ways that work not only for the network but for the studio.”
Networks also appear to be a little more willing to go to outside studios for shows, and some even sought out pitches. “Half of our drama pilots were with outside studios,” Ms. Lyne said. “We did make an effort to go out and beat the drums at all the studios, asking them to bring their best to us.”
While networks can still demand an ownership stake as a condition of a series pickup for fall, studio executives said networks realize the financial risks of owning 100 percent of your schedule are just too great.
Judged by the Pilot
“Economically, it’s very hard if I’m a network to say I want to own all my programming, because I know that’s going to make me more money in the long run,” said David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios. “The truth is that’s a very difficult bet to take and you might be better off spreading that bet around. It’s not prudent for a network to take that big of a bet when they really should be focusing on how to generate ratings.”
Mr. McPherson agreed and said it’s the quality of a pilot that determines a pickup not who makes it,” he said. “Network executives are still judged by the projects they put on the air. They’re not judged by whether they own it or not.”