Network drama has been on a roll with a string of strong premieres the last two seasons — Revolution, The Following and Arrow last season and The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow and Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Originals this fall. But the genre will have to rely heavily on the quality vs. quantity principal if its wants to continue its hot streak as the volume is definitely not there for next season. The drama buying got off to a very sluggish start in the summer and never found a higher gear. Drama pitches were down across the board. For instance, I hear NBC took in 280 hourlong pitches, down from 330 last season. It eventually ordered 20-30 fewer drama scripts this year vs. 2012. “It was like Halloween with the networks living on a street where no one came to trick or treat,” one industry insider lamented. “They were open for months but no one was knocking on their doors.” Why was that? Likely because network dramas are not that special any more.
For decades, the broadcast networks were the home of drama series everyone was watching and critics loved. Then in 1999, David E. Kelley almost didn’t go out on stage to receive a best drama series Emmy for his ABC series The Practice. In his defense, he said he “thought they had made a mistake, and that The Sopranos had won.” It hadn’t, and broadcast dramas held their grip on the top a category for four more years until HBO’s mob drama in 2004 became the first cable show ever to win the best series Emmy in a precursor of the tidal shift to come. Cable dramas now have won the top Emmy for the past seven years, with no signs of them letting up, while the U.S. commercial broadcasters were shut out completely from the category the last two years. Right now, working on a cable drama is more prestigious that writing on a broadcast one. With broadcast dramas no longer the syndication cash cows they once were, studios don’t pay a premium for writers to develop such shows anymore. “If they are not getting real money to develop for broadcast, writers may as well do cable for the creative freedom,” one observer noted. Besides the prestige and awards recognition, cable dramas also are becoming more lucrative financially because of services like Netflix where serialized series are a top draw. And let’s not forget that the highest-rated scripted series on television for the past two years is a cable drama, AMC’s The Walking Dead. All that has led to an exodus of broadcast showrunners to cable. The writers room of Emmy-winning first season of Showtime’s Homeland alone featured enough showrunner-level writers to service several broadcast dramas.
And it is not just the established cable networks anymore, with new cable and digital players like WE TV, WGN America, Bravo, E!, Netflix, Amazon and DirecTV entering the space too. There are an estimated 98 scripted dramas at the moment among broadcast, cable and digital platforms, all vying for writing talent. With many seasoned showrunners tied to them in staff positions, it is no surprise that many of them were not available to develop this broadcast season. The shortage opened the door for up-and-coming scribes like Mickey Fisher, whose spec Extant triggered a feeding frenzy, landing a series order at CBS and Halle Berry for the lead. On the other end of the spectrum, another drama to receive a straight-to-series order this selling season, CBS’ Battle Creek, comes from very accomplished showrunners, Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan and House’s David Shore. Its pickup illustrates another trend this season, of projects getting a second chance. Battle Creek was originally created by Gilligan a decade ago. Fox gave a 13-episode straight-to-series order to Travis Beacham‘s fantastical action-adventure spec Hieroglyph, which narrowly missed the cut for a pilot order at the network two seasons ago. And NBC resurrected cult 2007 CBS pilot Babylon Fields, from Michael Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta and Michael Atkinson, with a pilot order. Amblin TV is bringing back two high-profile projects with new writers, last season’s SAGA, redeveloped at ABC with Chris Black, and 2011-12’s Red Band Society, sold to Fox with Margaret Nagle, while ABC is taking another stab at mounting an adaptation of Dutch drama Sea Of Fire with Jenna Bans. The other projects that have received episodic commitments this season are Tina Fey/Robert Carlock’s comedy starring Ellie Kemper, which has a 13-episode pickup for next fall, and ABC‘s adaptation of upcoming Australian crime mystery drama Secrets & Lies, from producer Aaron Kaplan, who again was among the most prolific sellers with multiple production and put pilot commitments. It has a 10-episode commitment and is now casting. Secret & Lies and Sea Of Fire are among a slew of foreign format adaptations that again were red hot this season, along with series based on books and comics. There are the traditional go-to format destinations like the U.K. (NBC’s Cuckoo, ABC’s No Angels, Fox’s Dead Boss), Israel (ABC’s Irreversible), Latin America (CW’s Jane The Virgin and NBC’s Black Widow, both based on Venezuelan formats) and Northern Europe (ABC’s Park Road, based on Danish format, and Fox’s Bellicher, based on Dutch series). There also have been emerging territories, like Turkey whose drama The End is being adapted by Fox. High profile reboots this season include NBC’s Murder, She Wrote with Octavia Spencer and Remington Steele and CBS’ Charmed.
Once again books were a golden ticket to selling a pitch, with networks lapping them up both on the drama side and in comedy. Top crime writers were especially popular this season, including James Patterson, with CBS giving a production commitment to an adaptation of his thriller Zoo and developing dramas based on Anne Rice’s book series The Songs Of The Seraphim and on Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford book series. ABC is developing a Philip Marlow drama based on Raymond Chandler’s character and adapting the Annika Bengtzon novels of best-selling Swedish writer Liza Marklund. Meanwhile, Patricia Cornwell is behind an original crime drama idea at ABC. Comic books also were hot. DC/Warner Bros. TV set several projects, including pilot The Flash at the CW, from the team behind hit Arrow, Gotham, from Bruno Heller, which has a series commitment at Fox, Constantine, from Daniel Cerone & David Goyer at NBC, iZombie from Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero and Hourman at the CW. Marvel made a massive four-series plus a miniseries sale to Netflix for some of its comic book characters while also developing Agent Carter for ABC. Conde Nast sold multiple pitches based on Street & Smith pulp series.
But no property was hotter this season than L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard Of Oz, which spawned five different projects on broadcast and cable — NBC’s drama Emerald City, a dark reimagining of the classic tale of Oz in the vein of Game Of Thrones; CBS’ Dorothy, a medical soap inspired by the characters and themes from The Wizard Of Oz; the CW’s Dorothy Must Die, a revisionist take based on the upcoming young adult novel by Danielle Paige; Lifetime’s Red Brick Road, another edgy, Game Of Thrones take on the world of Wizard Of Oz, and Syfy’s miniseries Warriors Of Oz from director Timur Bekmambetov, a fantasy-action reimagining of the classic story.
The networks have been moaning about the craziness of pilot season when their 80-90 pilots have to compete for the same acting talent. This season there were fewer off-cycle pilots ordered in early summer like last year’s The Secret Lives Of Husband And Wives, Night Shift or We Are Men, but there have been a lot of early pilot orders in the fall, with the networks greenlighting scripts they like as soon as they are delivered (or spec ones they liked). The list includes ABC’s An American Education, based on a British format, Galavant and Strange Calls. NBC has comedy pilot Bad Judge starring Kate Walsh; futuristic drama Tim Man from Ehren Kruge; Babylon Fields, from Michael Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta and Michael Atkinson; and Odyssey, co-written and directed by Peter Horton. Fox has comedy pilots Fatrick and Here’s Your Damn Family (the latter has a cast-contingent pickup). CBS and the CW’s early pilots are both spinoffs – How I Met Your Mother offshoot How I Met Your Dad and Arrow-linked The Flash. It was another season with a slew of spinoff projects that also include CBS prepping a planted spinoff from flagship drama NCIS and ABC exploring a Modern Family spinoff starring Rob Riggle. That follows a season where three of the four piloted spinoffs went to series, The Vampire Diaries’ The Originals, which is doing very well, Once Upon A Time’s Wonderland, which has flopped and the Chicago Fire offshoot Chicago PD, which is yet to premiere. The trend is crossing over to cable where, following the success TNT’s Closer spinoff Major Crimes, AMC has ordered spinoffs of its biggest series, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad.
It was another good season for agents with a slew of big commitments. Two years ago, it was NBC and ABC, both with new presidents at the time, that drove up prices thanks to extra cash. This year, Fox was probably the most aggressive, backed by a 10% increase of its development funds. But as big commitments were pouring this selling season, they also suffered some devaluation. While a put pilot commitment used to mean at least $500,000, the threshold has been slashed in half and more. I hear penalties around $250,000 got labeled production commitments this season after talent insisted on calling them that. (For a production commitment, the size of the penalty normally should equal the license fee for a pilot) When it comes to the type of projects the networks went for, they mostly followed the old rule of stocking up on what has worked this fall, which meant buying more noisy fare like Sleepy Hollow and procedurals with a enigmatic character at the center like Blacklist.
New this development season was broadcast networks buying regular and event series at the same time, which also contributed to the draining of writing pool on the drama side. In one of the quickest turnarounds, ABC’s Cold War limited series The Assets, bought at the end of July, already has been scheduled for midseason.
There were a number of hot newcomers this season. That included Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the first year back in TV after a stint in features. They have sold several projects, including two comedies at Fox, The Last Man On Earth from Will Forte, which has a pilot production commitment, and Torched from writer Chris Romano, which has a put pilot commitment. And Rashida Jones and Will McCormack‘s newly launched shingle sold several pitches, including comedy A To Z, which has a put pilot commitment at NBC, and comedy Stuck, which has a put pilot commitment at Fox. It also has been a strong first development season for TV executives-turned-producers, with David Janollari, Steve McPherson, Marcus Wiley, Barry Jossen, Michael McDonald and David Brownfield all setting up multiple projects.