The week leading into upfront week has always been hectic but this year, that was taken to another level with a lot more early pickups than previous years. The Saturday morning before upfront week last year I was walking in and out of my daughters’ ballet class, monitoring the latest on ABC’s haggling with WBTV and 20th TV over the sizes of the orders for V and The Deep End. NBC didn’t renew Chuck until that Sunday afternoon. In comparison, heading into the weekend this year, NBC and Fox are done with all their pickups and renewals. (Both got a head start a couple of weeks earlier with straight-to-series orders for LOLA and Terra Nova, respectively). ABC is pretty much done too, and even CBS, the epitome of tradition, handed an early series order this year to Chuck Lorre’s Mike & Molly.
Why were there so many early orders this year? “It’s all about getting a jump start on writers,” one TV lit agent said. “There is competition to get the best writers, and the shows that are picked up late are at a disadvantage.” ABC’s Modern Family got an early pickup last year and locked in writers quickly. The show’s writing staff went on to win a WGA Award for comedy. Complicating things are the shrinking writing budgets for series that are often just north of $100,000 per episode. The producers “would put (prospective writers) on index cards with their quotes, trying to create the best combination to fit the budget cap,” another TV let agent said. To do that successfully, it’s important to have access to a large pool of talent and you can only do that if you’re early on the marketplace. The same goes for bubble series, which have to fight to keep their best writers from going to a show with a more certain future.
The networks used to delay the series pickups until the last minute mostly for dramatic effect so they can have an element of surprise at their upfront presentations. But with information being disseminated instantly these days, that is practically impossible. So why not give your spanking new show the best possible chance of survival by allowing it to go after the best writers out there?