After spending much of the past decade trying to push the envelope creatively, network development executives are headed back to basics with their fall 2009 pilot rosters.
Having been burned one too many times by shows that garnered critical acclaim but low Nielsen numbers—from “Arrested Development” and “The Class” to “Pushing Daisies” and “Swingtown”— television executives seem to have decided that recession-weary viewers are looking for shows that don’t require a significant intellectual investment from them.
“Especially in this time of great economic difficulty, it’s not surprising that viewers might gravitate toward the comfort food of heroism and escapism in straightforward, easy-to-follow storylines,” said Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have some fare that’s ingenious and challenging—and we do—but we strive for high-quality entertainment that will appeal to all viewers.”
That translates into pilots such as “Human Target,” a Warner Bros. TV-produced drama for Fox that revolves around one brave man who puts his life on the line for others. The show is straight out of the Stephen J. Cannell school of single-lead action hours such as “The Rockford Files,” “Hunter” and “The Commish.”
Likewise, CBS—which has flourished with a mass-appeal strategy—once again is developing a large assortment of cop, doctor and lawyer hours designed to fit well with episodes of “CSI” or “The Mentalist.”
NBC, known for its sophisticated single-camera comedies, is producing a multi-camera half-hour about crazies in a community college that sounds like it could have been made in 1986.
Even ABC, home to the medium’s most critically praised series, has its own Jerry Bruckheimer drama this year, along with a breezy take on the 1980s movie “The Witches of Eastwick.”
Still, anyone expecting a return to the era of Aaron Spelling-style least objectionable programming is likely to be disappointed. Networks and studios realize that in an age of limitless programming choices, even meat and potatoes needs to be served with a bit of pepper.
One top executive said it’s too simple to suggest that viewers just want to zone out in front of their sets with a beer.
“We have to give viewers entertainment,” the executive said. “Big shows like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lost’ may be hard to sustain, but these are shows that can make a big impact.”
A close eye on pilot costs and the emphasis on easy-to-digest programming is one of the many trends evident from an analysis of the five broadcast networks’ 2009-10 development slates, which once again are burgeoning with pilots following a reduction in development last year due to the writers strike. (Even NBC, which a year ago found pilots passé, now has nearly a dozen prototypes in the works.)
It’s important to note that what looks to be a trend in February can quickly fizzle by May, as networks have been known to quickly shift strategies.
That said, with less than three months to go before the networks let Madison Avenue (and the rest of the world) in on their final programming plans for next season, here’s an early look at what else to expect from the networks come autumn—as well as some of the behind-the-scenes trends shaping the pilot process:
The Hunt Is on to Find the Next ‘ER’
With NBC’s medical marvel finally set to end its 15-year run this spring, and critics carping about the quality of “Grey’s Anatomy,” executives see an opportunity to launch the Next Big Medical Franchise. CBS has no less than three medical dramas in development, while NBC has two in the works and Fox has one. Only ABC, already home to “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is sitting out the doctor derby, but with a half-dozen other projects in the works, that might not be such a bad move. Another “ER” vs. “Chicago Hope” squareoff doesn’t seem out of the question.
Studios Are Saying Goodbye to Gotham
New York’s decision to kill its production tax credit program has studios fleeing the Big Apple. (See related story on New York’s TV drought.) While last-minute switches are always possible, “We’re not planning to shoot anything in New York,” said Jennifer Nicholson Salke, executive VP of creative affairs for 20th Century Fox TV.
She’s not alone. Insiders at two other studios also suggested that New York was no longer a helluva town for pilot production and that the hunt is on to find alternatives.
Canada remains an option for many producers, and Ms. Nicholson Salke said her production executives are looking at Dallas as a possible substitute for Los Angeles. Another studio executive said Georgia and Illinois are making it attractive for studios to bring their business to their states.
Pilot Budgets Are Shrinking
It’s not unusual for studios to overspend on pilots in the hopes that a dazzling initial effort will wow networks into buying a project. But the financial crisis has studio insiders insisting things will be different this year.
“We’re controlling costs in a way we haven’t before,” Ms. Nicholson Salke said.
Warner Bros.’ Mr. Roth agreed, noting, “There’s no aspect of production that’s not being impacted.”
But it turns out there’s an upside to the global financial meltdown. Getting producers and talent to deal with the tightened pursestrings on the set of a pilot apparently is a lot easier when talk of another depression is in the air.
“I’ve been very heartened by how producers are approaching this,” Ms. Nicholson Salke said. “There’s no sense that we’re trying to shove something down their throats. The attitude is much more accepting, much more ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Pre-Sold Properties Are Abundant
There’s been lots of buzz about The CW’s planned reimagining of “Melrose Place,” as well as its “Gossip Girl” spinoff/prequel, but there’s plenty of recycling going on at the other networks as well.
CBS is producing a spinoff of “NCIS” (which itself was spun off from “JAG”), while Fox is remaking the British classic “Absolutely Fabulous.” ABC is reviving the 1980s sci-fi favorite “V,” as well tackling witchcraft via “Eastwick,” which is based on the feature film “The Witches of Eastwick”. And NBC is taking another stab at turning the 1989 feature “Parenthood” into a weekly series (a 1990 attempt failed miserably).
The last three projects also fit into another mini-trend this year: 1980s nostalgia. In addition to reviving concepts from that decade, the networks are in business with producers who thrived then. David E. Kelley has a legal drama set up at NBC, while Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick are back with the CBS hour “A Marriage.” And that “NCIS” spinoff? It stars Reagan-era rapper LL Cool J.
Everybody Wants to Get ‘Lost’
For all the emphasis this year on “watchability,” the networks haven’t given up entirely on the idea of launching shows that can double as events.
ABC, for example, is high on “Flash Forward,” a sprawling global epic from sci-fi titans Brannon Braga (“Star Trek: Enterprise”) and David Goyer (“The Dark Knight”), which examines what happens when the entire world blacks out for 137 seconds. It also has greenlit the mysterious “Happy Town” from “Alias” vets Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec.
NBC is in business with “Lost”/”Heroes” writer Jesse Alexander for “Day One,” which chronicles the survivors of a global calamity.
Comedies That Resemble Indie Films Remain Popular
That’s particularly true at Fox. The network’s “Sons of Tucson” is being compared to “Slums of Beverly Hills,” while “Save Us Then From the Whales” is set in the oh-so-sexy world of a nonprofit organization and “Walorksy” is being described as not dissimilar to “Bad Santa” (though it also has overtones of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”).
NBC is going for the indie sensibility, too, ordering a cop comedy from the folks who did “Upright Citizens Brigade” and a TV take on “Pride and Prejudice” called “State of Romance.” ABC has the high-concept “No Heroics,” a remake of a British comedy that posits superheroes are just like us.
Traditional Multi-Camera Half-Hours (and So-Called Hybrids) Are Hot
The number of old-school, filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience pilots has dramatically increased this year. What’s more, a number of projects are going the hybrid path, mixing elements of both single- and multi-camera formats, a la CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.”
ABC is hoping personality-driven comedy can work in the form of comedies starring both big names such as Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton (in different shows, after their ill-fated Fox pairing “Back to You”) as well as newer faces such as Anita Renfroe.
CBS, which has already proved that comedy ain’t dead, has multi-camera half-hours in the offing from producers who have worked on shows such as “Friends,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That ‘70s Show.”
So Much for Year-Round Development
Ms. Nicholson Salke of 20th Century Fox insists her calendar is less cluttered than usual because her counterparts at the Fox network have finally embraced the notion of shooting pilots throughout the year, rather than in a condensed four-month sprint.
But executives at other studios privately insist that most of the networks haven’t changed their ways at all, pointing to the large number of projects that have yet to even begin casting.
“The system hasn’t changed,” one executive said. “It’s still a cluster—-.”