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Year-Round Development On the Way

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

For years broadcast network executives have complained that the traditional development cycle stifles creativity and needs to be changed. But those statements have been followed up with inaction.
This year, several networks have started to plant the seeds to make a reality.
“One thing that is fairly evident is that change is in the air,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. “It’s being expressed verbally, if not actually, by at least three of the six networks. While the number of pilots being picked up is fairly consistent with what has been the year before, there are much more spirited discussions than ever before.”
Leading the way is Fox, which is making good on its intentions to be ready to air most of its new scripted shows by summer. Studio heads say Fox is the only network instituting early deadlines and deliveries, but NBC and The WB have expressed a strong desire to develop off-cycle. ABC, meanwhile, is exploring a different scripted drama model for potential summer series. Viacom-owned networks CBS and UPN appear to be sticking to the traditional cycle.
Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming at Fox Broadcasting Co., said writers and producers have been receptive to meeting Fox’s early deadlines to deliver scripts and pilots. “They see the success we’ve had launching shows in untraditional places, [such as] `The Simple Life’ in December and `The O.C.’ in August. They understand it’s to their advantage to not be launching when everything else is.”
Mr. Erwich, who has already seen chunks of footage of several pilots, said the network has not yet decided how many new shows will get summer launches. “We’d like as many options as possible,” he said. “It’s not a matter of how much we will and how much we won’t [air in the summer]. It’s just about if we want to, can we?”
In anticipation of launching some shows early, Fox has already ordered extra scripts of some of its pilots before they have received series orders, Mr. Erwich said.
While it is difficult to produce a pilot in the shorter time frame Fox is requesting-especially when many of the writers and creators of new pilots are on the staffs of current shows-it’s not impossible, studio executives say.
“It was very hard, yet I don’t think the quality suffered for it,” said David Kissinger, president of Universal Television Productions, which is producing the drama pilot “Hollywood Division” for Fox. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when a network is absolutely demanding it.”
Dana Walden, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television, said one of the ways 20th is dealing with extra script orders on Fox pilots is to assign scripts to free-lance writers and get a supply in the pipeline. “It is very challenging for writers who are staffing on series right now to also develop knowing that their shows could go as early as June,” she said.
Glimmers of change are also evident at NBC, which announced earlier this year it will begin its fall season a few weeks early-immediately following the Summer Olympics.
“Our programming right out of the Olympics will begin to be the first step in that direction in changing the traditional cycle,” said Kevin Reilly, president of prime-time development at NBC. “There is enough pressure on the business now that we may start to change it. If I have my way next year we’re going to be piloting a handful of things in the fall.
“This idea that everything waits until once and gets triggered en masse January to March is just insanity. It’s never been an efficient model. I don’t think there is any other industry under this sort of increasing competition that would continue to manufacture in the exact same way.”
NBC hasn’t ordered any extra scripts of pilots that have been picked up, but Mr. Reilly said he hopes NBC will be able to give an early nod to a handful of projects before the fall schedule is set. While NBC has plans to air several unscripted series this summer, Mr. Reilly said there are no plans to air a scripted series, but he hopes to have one on in summer 2005.
The WB, which saw its ratings dive last summer when it aired repeats and very little original programming, has been drawing up plans to launch shows at nontraditional times. The network gave an early eight-episode order to “Blue Collar TV,” a sketch show starring Jeff Foxworthy, which the network hopes to premiere before fall.
Two of The WB’s drama pilots, “Global Frequency” and “Rocky Point,” also will be shot off-schedule, but that’s due to scheduling conflicts more than year-round programming considerations. “Rocky Point” executive producer and director John Stockwell won’t be available to direct the pilot until summer and “Global Frequency,” which is based on a DC Comic, requires more prep time because of CGI effects that will be used. Both pilots will shoot in July.
Staffing Up
One benefit of producing a pilot early or off-schedule is that the show gets a jump on casting and choosing directors. Traditionally, all the studios and networks are vying for the same talent at the same time to cast and staff their pilots. If a pilot is picked up early, the show can build its writing staff and avoid the annual show staffing frenzy that takes place right after the upfront presentations to advertisers in May.
Some networks and studio executives said could help produce better shows because it takes the reduces the danger of missing windows in the traditional cycle and could give a second chance to a good idea that fell victim to bad casting or a poor script.
“That’s one of the advantages of trying to be in a year-round cycle,” Mr. Erwich said. “If an idea is good or if you believe in a project, you don’t have to throw it away because you didn’t make the deadline of that year’s traditional pilot schedule. You can say all right, we didn’t make it for this window, but let’s keep working on it.”
Every year networks roll over projects to the next season. This year is no different, with about a dozen projects being piloted that didn’t make it last year, including NBC’s “HUB,” ABC’s “Gramercy Park,” Fox’s “Mr. Ed,” CBS’s untitled Jason Alexander project and The WB’s “Jack and Bobby.”
“Jack & Bobby” has been in development for 21/2 years and has gone through three script incarnations. In today’s competitive environment, “People are holding on more emphatically to what they think are good ideas that are just not well realized in script form yet or not well realized in casting,” Mr. Roth said. “Sometimes it is really worth the while of the network and the studio to keep trying until you get it right.”
Mr. Reilly, who started his job at NBC in September, said he has already rolled over a couple of scripts that didn’t make it this year to be revisited in the summer. “Television scripts tend to take on this used-goods feel really quickly when they don’t make the cut,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. Somebody once said there is no other business where you take a product 80 percent of the way then throw it out and start over again.”
In its attempt to change the development cycle, Fox has made it clear to agents, writers and producers around town that its doors are wide open for pitches year round. The rest of the broadcast networks said they also are open to hearing pitches year round.
However, the practicality of year-round pitching remains to be seen with the traditional pilot cycle operating in full force. “With the majority of stuff still being done on the old cycle, it’s not like there’s a lot of free time for [networks] to be taking pitches right now,” said Steve McPherson, president of Touchstone Television. “They are focused primarily on casting pilots and going into production.”
Comedy Crunch
While has been the No. 1 topic this development season, finding a hit comedy comes in a close second. With NBC’s “Friends” and “Frasier” in their final seasons and HBO hit “Sex and the City” having just concluded its run, the television landscape is primed for the next big sitcom hit.
“Clearly there is a strong desire to find the next wave of hi
t sitcoms,” Universal’s Mr. Kissinger said. “We’ve been the beneficiaries of that. We have more sitcom pilots ordered than we have in four or five years.”
NBC has made no secret that its development priority this year is a hit sitcom. “A lot of times we vote against the funny in favor of the familiar, by saying we know where the series heads here,” Mr. Reilly said. “What I never understood was [saying], `It’s really funny, it’s really fresh, we just don’t know what the show is.’ How about start with funny and fresh and then figure it out? Usually you err in the other direction.”
To try to steer away from tired and stale concepts, 10 of the network’s 15 comedy pilots were created by people who have never done television before or have never created their own show before, Mr. Reilly said.
Dramatic Shift
New dramas have fared better than comedy over the past few years, but the genre’s focus seems to be shifting this year.
“The networks as a whole are looking for lighter dramas,” said Darryl Frank, co-head of DreamWorks Television. “It’s the pendulum swinging back the other way.”
Added DreamWorks TV co-head Justin Falvey: “For the past few years everyone was developing the harder-edge procedural dramas. This year other things are working, like `Las Vegas,’ that are lighter, and people are seeing that the audience will come to those as well.”
ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said the network made a conscious effort to order more lighthearted dramas that would mesh well in tone with its successful 8 p.m.-to-10 p.m. comedy blocks in hopes of carrying over that audience into the 10 p.m. hour.
“If you look at dramas ABC launched in the last decade, they were very different in tone and style than our 8-to-10 o’clock comedy time blocks,” Ms. Lyne said. “It makes it significantly harder if you are having to bring in an entirely new audience at 10 o’clock.”
UPN, riding high on the success of “America’s Next Top Model,”also has picked up several lighthearted drama pilots that could appeal to “Model’s” female-skewing audience, such as “Mystery Girl,” “Veronica Mars” and “Nikki and Nora.”
“If you look back at what’s been working over the course of the season, we’ve had incredible numbers with women 18 to 34,” said Dawn Ostroff, UPN’s president of entertainment. “We want to build upon our strengths and start to branch out from there.”
At The WB, high-profile drama remakes “Dark Shadows” and “The Robinsons: Lost in Space” are in development, along with “Global Frequency,” based on a little-known DC Comic.
While the strategy of reinventing an older concept worked for “Smallville,” it didn’t work this year with “Tarzan” or the year before with “Birds of Prey.” However, The WB still thinks viewers will buy into a remake if it is executed well, said Carolyn Bernstein, executive VP of drama development at The WB.
“We have had some successes and some failures with this kind of approach,” she said. “It really always comes back to putting our money on the writer and their visions of what the show could be.”
“Dark Shadows” and “Lost in Space” aren’t very familiar titles to The WB’s 12- to 34-year-old target audience, and the network is confident that both shows’ writers have brought a unique contemporary look to the material, Ms. Bernstein said.
“We hear a lot of pitches every year of these existing brand-name properties,” she said. “We don’t buy all of them. We buy the ones where we have tremendous faith in the writer’s ability to reimagine and reinvent that material for our younger contemporary audience.”