WB Abandons Testing of Pilots

Mar 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The WB is eschewing the longtime broadcast network tradition of testing pilots this year.
Usually after pilots are delivered to the networks, the nets hire research firms to show the new pilots to audiences and record their feedback. Network executives use the testing research to help make decisions about which shows to put on the schedule in the fall.
“We want to filter all that noise out,” said WB co-CEO Jordan Levin. “We’re investing in the management team to make tough decisions and trust their guts.”
The WB has struggled this year, without any one new show breaking out as a hit. Mr. Levin said the change is being made because the television landscape-littered with poor-performing shows that were heavily tested-proves testing does not guarantee a hit.
Mr. Levin said network executives presented the plan to small groups of advertisers they met with last week during development meetings and were relieved to find out that advertisers “were overjoyed to hear that.”
Andy Donchin, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Carat USA, was supportive of the plan. “I would trust their instincts,” he said. “They are the so-called experts. If they got the right talent and got the right story, then that works for me. They have a built-in brand, and they know what their brand is.”
The WB also detailed its comedy development strategy for this year, which is that less is more. “Picking up four or five new comedy shows doesn’t make a lot of sense in a world where popping one is hard enough,” Mr. Levin said. “No viewer seems to watch four comedies in a row.”
He said the strategy this year is to find comedies with strong voices and schedule more aggressively. “By historically scheduling comedies on Thursday and Friday nights, we have unintentionally sent a signal to our audience of comedies not being as important as dramas,” Mr. Levin said. “We are very seriously considering opening up one of the 8 o’clock time slots on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday for comedy.”
The network is also looking for different types of comedy. For example, it is exploring a comedy show with Drew Carey. Mr. Carey and his troupe of performers would perform a comedy improv show in a theater with a live audience. However, it would be shot against a green screen and animators would draw in backgrounds afterward.
The WB was just one of the five networks giving advertisers early looks at their development slates. CBS sits out of the pre-upfront meetings.
Media buyers were blown away by Fox’s presentation, which included actual clips of at least a dozen new shows. Many said it felt like going to the Fox upfront.
“Fox looks very strong,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of programming analysis, Initiative Media, New York. “They had tape of everything. Of all the networks who say they want to program year-round, they are far ahead. Fox seems to have more of a plan. They have a realization that viewers come to expect new programming. If not, they’ll go to cable.”
Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said the network’s message to buyers was, “We are starting our new schedule in June and starting our 52-week-a-year [schedule] right after the upfront.”
She said the network presented advertisers with different options for series they will have available to them to program in the summer and promised advertisers that “At the upfronts we would lay out the specifics” of when new shows would debut.
Shows that will be ready by June include already-ordered-to-series dramas “The Jury” and “North Shore,” sitcom “Method & Red” and reality shows “The Casino” and “The Simple Life 2.”
Shows that will be ready for launches later in the summer are dramas “Ricochet,” “Hollywood Division” and “The Deerings, ” sitcoms “Lucky Us,” “Quintuplets” and “Related by Family” and reality show “The Complex,” in which couples compete to make over Malibu condos.
While NBC had a lot to crow about at its presentation on the “Las Vegas” set as the No. 1 network in adults 18 to 49, some ad buyers were confused about what audience the network is targeting with its new programming.
Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC, discussed how baby boomers are growing out of the 18 to 49 demographic. Baby boomers used to be “the sweet spot,” but as they age, they are being replaced by Generation X and Generation Y as the target audience, he said.
Ms. Koerner said she was unclear on the point NBC was trying to get across. “Does that mean they see themselves going against WB or Fox?” she said. “They don’t want to disenfranchise baby boomers.”
Jeff Zucker, president of entertainment, news and cable at NBC, told advertisers to expect a stable schedule next fall, with three nights-Saturday, Sunday and Monday-unchanged.
Sunday night drama “Crossing Jordan,” hasn’t officially been renewed, but it’s a lock to return.
Mr. Zucker gave props to “Jordan,” hit reality show “The Apprentice,” the No. 1 new drama of the year in adults 18 to 49 “Las Vegas” and “Average Joe.”
Because of those four hours, he said, “Our needs aren’t as great” as everyone expected they would be. He also noted that NBC’s Thursday will still be “Must-See TV” because the network will trade in nine original hours of highly rated “Friends” this year for 32 hours of highly rated “The Apprentice” next year.
Monday nights next year will see a new version of “Average Joe” called “Plain Jane,” which turns the tables. One hot guy will have to choose from not-so-great-looking women.
Friday night drama “Third Watch” hasn’t been renewed but is likely to return.
NBC needs 11/2 hours of programming on Tuesday, an hour on Wednesday, a half-hour on Thursday, which “Friends” spinoff “Joey” is a sure bet to fill, and an hour on Friday.
Ms. Koerner said NBC looks strong overall but “still has problems in developing comedy. I’m not convinced `Joey’ is it.”
NBC showed clips of its new CGI-animated half-hour “Father of the Pride,” from DreamWorks Television, the studio behind the hit feature “Shrek.” While the visuals look amazing and buyers laughed at the clips, it could go either way. “It might not be edgy enough for television,” Ms. Koerner said.
Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff told advertisers that UPN achieved all its goals this year, including bringing A-list talent to the network and improving flow of audience from Monday nights to Wednesdays.
“The other main point that we made to the advertisers is that if you are trying to reach young women you should look at UPN as an alternative to The WB and ABC,” Ms. Ostroff said. “We’re a real player in the young women category.”
UPN saw its numbers rise in the young female demos with the addition of hit reality show “America’s Next Top Model” and its strong Monday night sitcom block, which benefited from the addition of “Eve” this year.
Shari Anne Brill, director of programming services for Carat North America, gave UPN’s director a thumbs up. “Dawn Ostroff has a phenomenal vision of what the network should be-to appeal to young, trend-setting, multi-ethnic adults,” Ms. Brill said.
With ABC’s comedy blocks working, Entertainment President Susan Lyne said the network is focused on drama this year and went into development not trying to copy others but to find what’s missing.
“We focused on trying to find that great appointment show for women,” Ms. Lyne said. “There are so many women who tell me there are no scripted shows they are passionate about. There’s no `Ally McBeal,’ no `Melrose Place,’ no `Once and Again.”’
To that end, David E. Kelley was present to talk about his new show centering on three sisters and their wedding planner business, along with his spinoff of “The Practice,” which will star James Spader. Other female-friendly contenders include “Desperate Housewives,” “Kat Plus One” and “111 Gramercy.”
Ms. Lyne said ABC is following an aggressive reality strategy this year and showed clips of two new summer reality shows to advertisers:
“The Swap,” in which two women switch households for two weeks, and “The Benefactor,” in which billionaire Mark Cuban gives $1 million to the contestant he likes best. n
Wayne Friedman contributed to this report.