Exactly 20 years ago, German rock band Scorpions released Wind of Change, which became an anthem for our generation of young Eastern Europeans going through a dramatic political change: the fall of communism. Coming back from the broadcast upfront presentations in New York last week, I’ve been having a hard time getting the catchy tune out of my head. While less far-reaching and profound, there is a clear sense of changing of the guard and a new direction for the broadcast networks this year. I can’t remember a time where the majority of the networks had new heads at their upfront presentations. Paul Lee took over for Steve McPherson at ABC, Bob Greenblatt for Jeff Gaspin and Angela Bromstad at NBC, and Mark Pedowitz is succeeding Dawn Ostroff at the CW. There is a similar changing of the guard among the top TV producers this year. Upstart Chernin Entertainment and DreamWorks TV, which is re-entering the broadcast arena, topped the pods with the most new series, three each, with another recently launched company, Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment, scoring two new shows. And in its first season, Marty Adelstein and Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps/Adelstein Prods.got one pilot, Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, picked up to pilot, with another, Fox’s Family Album, in serious contention. Meanwhile, such longtime upfront fixtures as Jerry Bruckheimer TV, Mark Gordon Co. and Wonderland didn’t land any new series for next season.
Also in a departure from upfronts’ recent past, bullish by the influx of ad dollars from the recovering economy and driven by the desire of their new chiefs to stand out, ABC, NBC and CW took bigger swings than usual with such unconventional projects as the Broadway-themed Smash and Inception-flavored Awake (NBC), fairytale mystery Once Upon a Time and horror thriller The River (ABC). Meanwhile, CW successfully went after a pilot that had been developed and produced for a much larger network, CBS’ Ringer. And there are two other changes that I feel may signal a shift in the way TV development is done.
First: actors taking things in their own hands. Tired of waiting for the perfect pilot script to come along, more actors than ever went ahead and wrote a pilot for themselves this past development season. Many of the scripts went to pilot and then to series, including Whitney Cummings’ Whitney on NBC, David Hornsby’s How To Be a Gentleman, Chris Moynihan’s Man Up and Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair’s BFF.
The other trend undermines the fundamentals of the broadcast development system. A lot has been written about the cumbersome and painful network notes process; creators often complain that it interferes with their vision. Well, the network brass circumvented their traditional development process more than ever this season, going heavily for spec scripts that were often taken out in the final stage of the development process. Both of CBS’ newly picked-up comedy series, 2 Broke Girls, which became CBS’ highest-testing pilot ever, and How To Be a Gentleman, were spec scripts CBS nabbed in December and January, respectively. Also based on spec (or previously developed elsewhere) scripts are six other new series for next season: NBC’s Awake and Smash, ABC’s Apartement 23, Fox’s Alcatraz and Touch and CW’s Ringer. They say that in television it’s all about the distinct voice of the series’ creator. With so many new shows making it to the screen with the voice of their creators virtually unfiltered by the network development machine, maybe the broadcast networks will move closer to the cable and British model of auteur TV. The only downside is that many TV development execs may be out of a job.