On Wednesday, NBC Universal will present advertisers with a “52-week” schedule that will stagger show premieres year-round rather than concentrate them in September. It’s just one of a number of ideas that television executives trumpeted after this winter’s writers’ strike.
This innovation, although highly touted, doesn’t exactly alter the face of television. But it is an example of what happened during the strike, when networks got the opportunity to rethink some of TV’s more archaic and expensive conventions.
Now, midway through an abbreviated pilot season, some of these ideas have taken root, including efforts to cut back on filming pilots, the glossy first episodes of potential new series that often cost $7 million and up. Other initiatives, some aimed at changing the way networks sell shows to advertisers, have yet to play out.
Partly as a consequence of making fewer pilots, which can serve to test risky concepts, the networks are relying on the tried-and-true. Several new shows are based on successful series from abroad, and past hits in the U.S. And — perhaps in an effort to emulate the success of NBC Universal’s “Heroes” and “Psych” — several planned new shows feature do-gooder characters with special mental abilities.
Traditionally, the networks have commissioned many more pilots than they intend to air, using them to decide which shows will make the cut for their fall schedules. This year network executives have ordered about 30 pilots, compared with the typical 70 or so. Some networks have opted to order full or partial series without pilots, relying on the strength of the concept, format or talent involved, sometimes abetted by a brief presentation to show to advertisers.
And because the strike delayed the development season by many weeks, the networks have had an even greater incentive to cut through the typical bureaucracy, speeding up the casting process, making quicker decisions on scripts, and planning in advance to sell shows internationally and on the Web.
“There’s much more thought being given up front to whether there are opportunities to create digital worlds around some of these shows to help create awareness ahead of time,” says Gary Newman, chairman of News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox Television. News Corp. also owns Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
NBC has led the charge in picking up a number of shows without pilots. “My Own Worst Enemy,” won its acceptance largely because Christian Slater is in the starring role. Fox Broadcasting Co. decided to forgo a pilot for its new series “Dollhouse” by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, opting to invest money instead in building the elaborate, life-size dollhouse that will be the show’s set. For its murder-mystery “Harper’s Island,” CBS Corp. is only producing a five-minute opening sequence, in which a man is chewed up by the propeller of a party boat, and a five-minute “saga sell” that outlines the series’ plot.
“We’re going to spend a couple of days, shoot a few scenes and present them to the network in an organized, sales-oriented way,” says David Stapf, the president of CBS Paramount Network Television, the studio that is producing the show for CBS network. “In other words: ‘Here’s the show.’ We don’t need to spend $7 million on a pilot to do that.”
Committing to series without seeing full pilots may help the networks save money now, but it carries risks. The pilot system, as expensive as it is, evolved as a way of avoiding the disasters that occasionally occur when a terrific script yields a miserable show.
Ad buyers aren’t enthusiastic about the reduction of pilots, says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, an ad-buying firm. For many years, advertisers have depended on full pilots to help determine how they purchase commercial time on the broadcast networks during the “upfront” season, when networks sell advertisers commercial time before the fall TV season begins.
“It’s going to require a little bit more creative thinking on the part of buyers and researchers to gauge how these shows are going to perform,” Mr. Adgate says.
NBC is hedging its bet on “Kings,” a modern-day retelling of the story of King David. The network is expecting to spend at least the traditional $6 million to $7 million on the first episode of the show, but instead of a standard hour-long pilot, it will be a two-hour show that could be run as stand-alone special or sold on DVD if NBC decides against picking up the full season, says Katherine Pope, the president of Universal Media Studios, which is producing the show.
CBS-Warner Bros. joint venture The CW is hoping the power of nostalgia will propel a modern update of ’90s prime-time soap “Beverly Hills 90210.” That show will be written by Rob Thomas, who is reincarnating another 1990s show, his critically lauded but short-lived romantic comedy “Cupid” for Walt Disney Co.’s ABC. NBC has resuscitated 1980s car show “Knight Rider.” Fox is considering “The Pitts,” an animated show based on that network’s 2003 live family comedy.
International formats carry less built-in recognition, and in most cases the rights must be purchased, but they provide a chance to skip pilots — and cut costs — as episodes of the original foreign show can give advertisers a reasonably accurate picture of what’s to come. In the wake of recent successes with these adaptations, including the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “The Office” on NBC and ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” originally from Colombian network RCN, the networks have gobbled them up this year.
Among the international shows being adapted, the Australian mother-daughter comedy “Kath & Kim” has been picked up by NBC. Fox is planning “The Inn,” a version of “Upstairs/Downstairs” from Britain’s ITV PLC, set in a New York City hotel. ABC is adapting the BBC series “Life on Mars.”
CBS is also borrowing heavily from the BBC, developing “Ny-Lon,” about a cross-continental romance, and “Worst Week.” The network is also developing “Mythological Ex,” adapted from an hour-long romantic dramedy produced by Israel’s Keshet Broadcasting. It is being produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television for two-thirds the price of an average hour-long show, which typically costs $3 million or more.
In another potentially cost-saving move, the networks have opted to bring back a higher-than-average number of last year’s freshman shows. Series such as NBC’s “Life” and ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” that didn’t command blockbuster ratings in the weeks before the strike began are getting a second shot. Because of these pickups, the networks have less need for new fall shows and more liberty to save some promising projects for midseason or summer premieres.
The major production studios are producing approximately four new shows apiece this spring, down from the usual dozen. Among them is CBS’s “The Mentalist,” about an independent detective who uses his unusual powers of observation to help police solve crimes. ABC’s “Section 8” is about especially brainy individuals recruited to work in a secret government branch, and Imagine Television is developing a project for Fox about a man who uses his preternatural skill at reading body language to help solve mysteries.
Production studios are anticipating orders will trickle in through the summer. It is a move to “evolutionary pickups rather than revolutionary pickups,” says Zack Van Amburg, co-president of programming and production for Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures Television.
“We’ve made a real decision to say that we will make the projects that are ready to be made now, and then we’ll make more after the traditional pilot season is over,” says Dawn Ostroff, entertainment president of the CW.
Fox, and to a lesser extent other networks, had been moving toward a more staggered schedule, including more winter and summer premieres, for years. That trend will continue this year, as all the broadcasters said they were holding back some promising material and waiting to make decisions on other good scripts, with plans to produce these shows for later debut. It is too early to tell just how staggered the broadcast network schedule will end up.
NBC is billing its Wednesday presentation to advertisers and the press as an “infront” to replace the traditional more lavish “upfront” normally held in May — which it will forgo this season. But as some have pointed out, the change isn’t that earthshaking: Such April presentations have existed for years.
Source: Wall Street Journal