For years broadcasters have bought new projects on a fairly rigid schedule that ensured shows would be ready for the traditional fall season launch. But as networks have begun moving away from premiering the bulk of their new product in September, they’ve also started expanding the development season.
In the past studios and writers would come to the networks after the upfronts in May and pitch series ideas, culminating in a sale season that peaked during midsummer and tapered off in September. But facing the mandate of the 52-week season and year-round scheduling, show creators are confronting the prospect of year-round development from networks looking for scripted hits regardless of the time of year.
By all accounts, in order to see a payoff to the expansion strategy-and further industrywide commitment to changing the development season-the industry needs to see more hits come out of the nontraditional process.
Fox, the first network to aggressively embrace the 52-week season, also has been the most aggressive in altering its development season.
Jennifer Nicholson-Salke, senior VP of drama at 20th Century Fox, said her studio is producing two pilots for the Fox Network before Christmas: “Point Pleasant,” a series that profiles a New Jersey girl who discovers she is the daughter of Satan; and “Prison Break,” which follows a man who deliberately gets sent to jail in order to mastermind an escape.
“They went out for the year-round thing and we did it,” she said of Fox. “There are three different periods where we are selling to our network.”
Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox Broadcasting Co., said making the change has not been simple, since many writers and directors who are usually available to develop and shoot pilots are often in the throes of getting episodic work done on existing shows.
“It requires a lot of planning,” he said. “You have to make plans to develop with people in advance-fortunately it’s a fairly large community and there’s people to draw on. We may be picking up pilots in the next few weeks for scripts we picked up before the upfronts.”
Ms. Nicholson-Salke said she recognizes the skepticism some developers have for the strategy.
“It’s a huge challenge,” she said. “We need to have some success launching these shows, so you attract big-name talent. Right now everybody is sitting back and watching. Something has to work before you’ll see agents supporting their clients to come and develop at off times.”
Larry Salz, a TV agent at United Talent Agency, said year-round development is still a long way off.
“Yes, Fox is doing that, other networks are doing it, but it’s all in the early stages of working itself out. The majority of projects are still pitched in the end of June, the beginning of July.”
Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at UPN, said the development season has been dictated to programmers because of some strong outside forces that have helped establish that creative cycle.
“If you’re going by the upfront season and have summer programming on, there’s a definite schedule in place because of the way the shooting schedule is dictated to us by advertisers,” she said. “For the most part you’re going to see that stay the same. That being said, every network would say if something came their way any time of the year, anybody would be open to what’s different and exciting.”
There is also the issue of the competition created by a closed-ended sales season, when agents with hot clients can visit several networks in a limited period of time and command higher rates thanks to heightened bidding. But Cori Wellins, VP of the William Morris Agency, said there already is an open-ended buying season from cable networks.
“There are many networks you can go around to, so it never ends,” she said, noting that the intensely competitive marketplace agents used to enjoy has changed dramatically since studios and networks are owned by the same company and now enjoy powerful leverage.
“With vertical integration the market has become so difficult to build that competitive nature,” she said. “There’s always the opportunity for your clients to set up and sell shows now 12 months of the year, which I think is a very interesting opportunity.”
But Ms. Ostroff said what works for cable networks doesn’t always hold true for broadcasters, who don’t have the luxury of picking up only two or three premium series a year that can then be carefully programmed and scheduled.
“It’s a combination,” she said. “We’ve all seen different shows at different times premiere. We premiered `Top Model’ in June. `The O.C.’ worked for Fox. It’s not to say programs won’t come on and pop. It is to say the backbone of what you are bringing the viewer needs to be a cohesive schedule that has flow and they can understand at any given time.”