Economic recession be damned — the broadcast networks have been spending like it’s 2007 this year. A slew of bidding wars led to a staggering 9 pilot orders/production commitments and 33 put pilot commitments so far this buying season. Additionally, NBC is eying straight-to-series orders for 2 Bryan Fuller-written dramas: a Munsters reboot and Hannibal, based on the Hannibal Lecter character. With dire needs, new owners willing to invest a lot of money in a turnaround and new management eager to make their mark, NBC has been the most aggressive this buying season. In addition to the likely straight-to-series orders, four of the 9 pilot orders/production commitments so far have been given out by the peacock network: comedy Isabel, inspired by a French Canadian format, and John Scott Shepherd’s comedy Save Me, which are casting, and the J.J. Abrams/Eric Kripke adventure thriller Revolution and crime drama Blue Tilt, written by Chris Brancato and starring Ethan Hawke and Vince D’Onofrio, which have pilot production commitments. The remaining 4 pilot production orders went to Jon Favreau comedy spec Tweaked and a multi-camera workplace comedy from Bill Lawrence and Greg Malins at CBS, multi-camera family comedy The Manzanis starring Kirstie Alley and an untitled Dan Fogelman comedy at ABC and the Mike Royce-penned cast-contingent comedy pilot Little Brother at Fox.
It wasn’t exactly the mass hysteria of summer 2007 when the networks were stockpiling in the face of a potential writers strike, but the level of urgency this season came pretty close. “(NBC) got cash, (ABC) got competitive against that cash, and we took the bait,” Fox’s entertainment president Kevin Reilly said at the HRTS luncheon last month. “We all think we were played a little bit.” Indeed, there were a number of projects, especially on the comedy side, that had NBC, ABC and Fox bidding aggressively against each other. How aggressive was ABC this season, which marked the first full development cycle for the network’s topper Paul Lee? It shelled out some 10 put pilot commitments, more than any other network. And that is despite the fact that a large portion of ABC’s development comes from sister studio ABC Studios where the vast majority of sales have no penalties attached as the transaction involves moving money from one pocket to another. Fox and CBS are not far behind with 9 put pilot commitments each, while NBC has 5, through it more than made up the difference with several bigger commitments as well as a slew of script sales with penalties attached. Part of the reason for the staggering amount of put pilot commitments this season is the devaluation of the term, which once applied to penalties of $1 million but is now used for penalties as low as $500,000 and sometimes even lower. The rest was fierce competition, especially between NBC and ABC. Both networks bought more projects than they did last year. NBC got second wind a month or so ago when the network’s brass reportedly evaluated their slate and decided that it was lacking in some areas.
As I have noted ad nauseam, this has been the season of comedy. Long before the genre’s red-hot fall with breakout hits New Girl, 2 Broke Girls and Suburgatory and solid performer Last Man Standing, the networks went aggressively after the genre, which ended up eclipsing drama in sales this year for the first time in quite awhile. By a recent account (there are a few more comedy projects in play, so the comedy tally is still growing), there have been about 252 comedy and 250 drama sales this year vs. 233 comedy and 269 drama last season. Seven of the 9 pilot orders/production commitments went to comedy projects. In contrast, all big commitments in pre-WGA strike 2007 were given to dramas: straight-to-series orders to Section 8 at ABC, The Philanthropist, Fear Itself and Robinson Crusoe at NBC and Eleventh Hour at CBS and series commitment to Ryan Murphy’s Queen B, The Oaks and The FBI at Fox and The Kingdom at CBS.
Besides the astounding overall number of comedy buys, also surprisingly high this year was the number of half-hours that came with talent attached, especially at NBC and ABC. They include NBC comedy projects starring Roseanne Barr, Sean Hayes, Sarah Silverman, Portia de Rossi, Kal Penn, Snoop Dogg, Nick Thune and Omid Djalili. ABC went for comedies toplined by Kirstie Alley, Reba McEntire, Jim Belushi, Judy Greer, Ashley Tisdale, Jeff Garlin, Jim Breuer, Romeo Santos, Nia Vardalos, Marlon Wayans, Craig Kilborn and Sharon Horgan. The last 4 will also create their starring vehicles, as will Aasif Mandvi who is headlining a comedy for CBS. Fox has comedies starring Tyler Labine and Hannibal Buress. The trend is almost non-existent on the drama side save for NBC’s Blue Tilt that was sold with Hawke and D’Onofrio on board.
Talent has been big this season, not only in the large volume of comedy projects with actors attached but also in the rise of talent holding deals, which had almost gone away in recent years. The latter is another sign of the increased competition this season, with the broadcast networks and the studios building war chests heading into the craziness of pilot casting season. The actors signed in talent/development deals so far include Vanessa Williams, Jesse Martin, Leah Remini and Scott Michael Foster at ABC; Dane Cook, Jason Ritter, Sally Pressman and Corey Reynolds at NBC; Martin Lawrence at CBS; Greg Grunberg at Warner Bros. TV, and Tim Roth and Sarah Chalke at 20th TV.
Also hot for a second straight season are book adaptations. I’ve counted at least 4 dozen this year. Among the most prominent are Stephen Gaghan’s adaptation of Leif G.W. Persson’s books about homicide detective Evert Backstrom at Fox, Shane Brennan’s adaptation of the King & Maxwell series of novels by David Baldacci at CBS, the CW’s series based on Candace Bushnell’s Sex And The City prequel The Carrie Diaries, NBC’s Easy Rawlins, based on Walter Mosley’s best-selling novels, NBC’s Valley of the Dolls, penned by Lee Daniels (though that is based more on the movie that the book spawned), Peter Tolan’s single-camera comedy for ABC Angela’s Bachelors, based on the book Angelina’s Bachelors: A Novel With Food; and X-Men: First Class co-writers Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s popular fantasy novel The Magicians for Fox. Not a big year for comic book adaptations, with only a handful, led by Fox’s collaboration with Marvel on The Punisher, written by Ed Bernero. The other comics getting potential series treatment this season include The Spectre at Fox and Deadman at the CW. Also getting out of fashion as source material are blogs and Twitter feeds, with only one major representative, Silvio Horta’s comedy at Fox based on the Texts From Last Night blog.
On the drama side, Westerns are hot this season, and the streak started well before the strong premiere of AMC’s Hell On Wheels on Sunday. CBS is rebooting The Rifleman with Laeta Kalogridis, Chris Columbus and Carol Mendelsohn, Fox has a Wyatt Earp Western penned by John Hlavin, NBC has an untitled Kerry Ehrin project set in the 1880s, while ABC has Ron Moore’s Hangtown , set in the early 1900, and David Zabel’s Gunslinger. The Western buys underline the broadcast networks’ continuing interest in period dramas despite the struggles of 1960s entries The Playboy Club and Pan Am this fall. Shonda Rhimes alone set up 2 period projects: Gilded Lillys at ABC, a 1895 drama written by KJ Steinberg; and Wildwood, a 1980s dramedy written by Diane Ruggiero, which received a put pilot commitment at Fox. Additionally, NBC’s Valley Of The Dolls is set in 1960s as is CBS’ Ralph Lamb, from Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi. ABC bought 2 projects about 1970s families who have their own variety shows: an untitled comedy from writer Joe Keenan and The Lockharts, a musical hour drama from writers Michael Gans & Richard Register.
The networks’ interest in series/movie reboots also was not dampened by the quick demise of ABC’s Charlie’s Angels. (though most of the new projects were set up before the series premiered). Series revamps include Bewitched and The Rifleman at CBS, Wiseguy and The Munsters at NBC (the latter is technically a redevelopment from last season) and Beauty And The Beast at the CW. Movies getting series adaptations include the 1984 action-adventure romantic comedy Romancing the Stone at NBC, with Mark Friedman and Shawn Levy potentially directing, a comedy series based on the 2010 British comedy feature The Infidel, with the film’s star Omid Djalili reprising his role, a half-hour series version of Zombieland at Fox, with original writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick on board, and a drama at ABC based on The Lincoln Lawyer.
Format adaptations also were very popular this year, with the geographic region of the source material continuing to expand. There are 3 projects based on Israeli formats — CBS’ comedy Life Isn’t Everything, NBC’s drama Pillars Of Smoke and the CW drama Danny Hollywood. That is on par with the number of formats from the traditionally most popular destination, UK: Suburban Shootout and White Man Van at ABC and Friday Night Dinner at NBC, which is shepherded by Greg Daniels. ABC has 2 high-profile remakes of Mexican telenovelas: Devious Maids, which is written by Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, and an adaptation of hit Soy Tu Dueña, penned by Jorge Zamacona. Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman is behind 2 format adaptations at ABC, Red Band Society, which she is writing based on the Spanish format Polseres Vermelles, and musical drama The Avalon, based on the Pan Asian format The Kitchen Musical, which Kauffman will write with Jessica Queller. Additionally, ABC has put in development Anti-Mafia Squad, a drama based on the 2009 Italian series Squadra Antimafia – Palermo Oggi. There are 2 French Canadian comedy formats that made their way to the U.S. broadcast networks: Le Monde De Charlotte, which served as inspiration for the NBC pilot Isabel, and Les Invincibles at Fox.
The successful launch of fairytale-themed new series Once Upon A Time on ABC and Grimm on NBC came too late to influence the broadcast networks’ buying patterns though ABC may have realized that they were onto something with Once Upon A Time as it bought 2 drama projects with magical/fairytale elements ahead of the show’s debut: the Jonathan E. Steinberg-penned Beauty and the Beast (not to be confused with the CW’s reboot of the 1980s series), described as an epic fantasy re-imagining of the classic Beauty and the Beast tale, and a project from writer Michael Green and 20th TV, which centers on a female cop who discovers a magical world that exists within New York City. The latter received a put pilot commitment from the network.
While the number of big commitments this season is indeed staggering, industry veterans know that they don’t mean much. If a network doesn’t like the finished script, in most cases it won’t pick up the project to pilot regardless of the commitment. And in most cases it won’t pay the steep penalty stipulated in the commitment either, leading to the usual horse trading between networks and studios and rolling of commitments to next season. Here is a word of caution about how inconsequential big commitments are: Of the 4 projects with series commitment in 2007, none made it to pilot. Of the five with series orders, one, Section 8, was scrapped (it recently resurfaced on Syfy as Alphas) and the others didn’t last beyond that initial order.
Coming up later this week: A look how showrunners and producers did this development season.