Broadcast executives for years have been preaching about switching to a year-round development cycle or adopting the cable model of producing fewer pilots with higher pilot-to-series ratio. They have been ordering occasional off-cycle pilots and have jumped on scripts with pilot orders in November and December but are yet to break the traditional pilot season paradigm. This coming year, they may be forced to. In 2013, we had what was probably the first true continuous pilot season, with existing and new cable and digital players constantly handing out pilot and straight-to-series orders. Add to that the new push into limited/event series arena, and there were at least a dozen projects casting at any time of the year. That has kept casting directors and TV talent agents busy and has further depleted the acting talent pool. Every year, there are a handful of pilots that are left unproduced because of difficulty casting. There is quiet panic in the air these days that this coming pilot season we will see a lot more of that. It is the logical next step after the proliferation of scripted programming across different platforms caused a shortage of writers, especially on the drama side, pushing the number of drama buys this development season way down.
A cancelled series used to mean a cast available for the following broadcast pilot season. When ABC in January 2010 announced that Ugly Betty was going to end that spring, it created a feeding frenzy for the stars of the show that pilot season. Now actors from cancelled shows are snatched long before the following broadcast pilot season rolls along. For instance, the CW said in May that drama Nikita was calling it a day with a final six-episode installment. Its male leads, Shane West and Aaron Stanford are already spoken for with big roles in cable projects — West is the male lead on WGN America’s first scripted series, drama Salem, Stanford is the lead of Syfy’s pilot 12 Monkeys, based on Terry Gilliam’s movie, with his Nikita co-star Noah Bean also cast in the pilot.
The ramp-up of original scripted production by emerging players has been staggering. WGN America only announced its entry into the space in March. It now has two straight-to-series dramas, Salem and Manhattan, and ten-part event series Ten Commandments slated to air next year. Amazon alone ordered and cast some 13 comedy and drama pilots this past year, almost double the yearly pilot output of a broadcast network, the CW. Other new outlets greenlighting scripted pilots and series now are Netflix, Bravo, E!, DirecTV, We TV, xBox and Hulu. We also saw a rapid rise in ambitious, multi-series/movie-to-series packages, like Marvel’s 60-episode, four-series and mini-series with such comic book characters as Daredevil at Netflix and Manhattan producer Skydance’s plan for a series to tie its upcoming Terminator movie trilogy. All those projects will be looking for casts.
And then there is the uncharted territory of limited/event series. In theory, they should be standalone programming that actors could do between seasons of regular series. But most of those event series are designed to be able to continue in success. Like CBS’ Under The Dome, originally ordered as a summer limited series, which was picked up for a second season after a strong start. FX brass also are keen on extending its mini-series Fargo if the original run does well as are Fox executives with the 24 event series.
All that is causing TV studio and network casting executives a great deal of anxiety heading into the intense pilot season when some 100 broadcast pilots are ordered and have to be cast within a two-month window. There have been many close calls the last couple of seasons, even on some of the biggest shows. The two breakout new series this fall, NBC’s The Blacklist and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, both found themselves with their backs against the wall and in danger of getting pushed because of difficulties casting the lead. Both got very lucky. After a slew of top feature and TV actors passed on The Blacklist, James Spader came in and made the show the hit that it is. And after Karl Urban, who was the choice to play Ichabod Crane, was lured by Almost Human, a last-minute screen test resulted in one of the most interesting talent discoveries of the fall, little known British actor Tom Mison. Last year, NBC’s Revolution was days into filming the pilot with no lead, and Billy Burke had already shot scenes as Gen. Monroe, the role he had been originally cast for, before he was handed the central part of Miles. One could argue that in all three cases, the time crunch actually helped cast the right actors in roles they may not have been obvious choices for, but with the pool further depleted this year, networks may not be as lucky. There is just not enough time and a tremendous competition among pilots, especially for male actors in drama leads.
Which leads us to the ever growing influx of overseas talent. The broadcast networks have been increasingly relying on British, Australian and Canadian actors for pilot duties, with foreign thesps now getting as much as half of drama pilot leads. Come pilot season, studio business affairs execs turn into immigration attorneys, spending a lot of their time arranging work visas. Given the growing scripted production across the dial, that trend will likely continue to accelerate. It also gives feature actors extra leverage to demand shorter runs in signing for a broadcast series as Kevin Bacon and Greg Kinnear did for Fox’s The Following and Rake, respectively. With all said, it would be interesting to see how many pilots won’t make it this year because of casting or staffing (showrunner) issues. Will the experience finally push the networks to a year-round development cycle or get them closer to the cable model, making fewer pilots with higher pilot-to-series ratio?
Here are a few other TV industry questions for 2014:
Will we see a top executive shakeup at a broadcast network? It has been pretty stable in the top executive suites at the broadcast networks since the shakeups of 2010-11 that brought in new network heads at ABC, NBC and the CW. 2013 was the year of unscripted executive changes, with ABC, Fox and CBS all ending the year with new heads of reality as the genre continues to struggle to produce a new tentpole franchise besides The Voice. There were plenty of fireworks in cable, with NBCUniversal and A+E Networks both restructuring top management under new top bosses Bonnie Hammer, who took over the company’s entire entertainment cable portfolio with Lauren Zalaznick stepping down, and Nancy Dubuc, who moved into the CEO role. A number of other cable networks saw top-level changes, like ABC Family, where Tom Ascheim succeeded Michael Riley; E!, where Jeff Olde replaced Lisa Berger; TruTV, where Chris Linn succeeded Marc Juris; and WE tv where Juris replaced Kim Martin. HBO saw the departures of CEO Bill Nelson, president and COO Eric Kessler and entertainment president Sue Naegle. But it had been business as usual for their broadcast brethren despite constant speculation. Going into fall, the rumor mill had focused on NBC following a lackluster second half of the season but Comcast swiftly squashed any shakeup talk in September by extending chairman Bob Greenblatt’s contract through 2017. NBC proceeded to have a solid fall. Attention then moved to ABC, which has been struggling, with Scandal as a rare bright spot as most of the network’s new shows have failed to take root. Nothing appears imminent but in the broadcast executive cycle, we usually see some turnout every 4-5 years.
Will we finally get a breakout comedy? The genre has been going through a slump lately. CBS’ Friends With Better Lives will get a big sampling with a debut behind the How I Met Your Mother finale though it will then join a weakened CBS Monday lineup. NBC’s About A Boy has title recognition and known talent in front and behind the camera but airs on NBC where comedies have had a very rough sledding. If none of the midseason broadcast comedy offerings makes a mark, we will have to wait for fall.
Will NBC weather the midseason slump better this year? NBC brass have been far more optimistic about the network’s January prospects with no Sunday Night Football and The Voice this season vs. last year when NBC rapidly dropped from first to fourth place. It is also a shorter period this time — only seven weeks — before NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage takes over.
Will cable networks’ drive to own everything they air continue? FX started the trend with FX Prods., which produces all of the network’s comedy series and many dramas. TNT, AMC and ABC Family followed. In 2013, A+E Networks and NBCU Cable Entertainment Group made a big statement by appointing two of their top networks execs, Bob DeBitetto and Jeff Wachtel, respectively, to spearhead their efforts in the space.
Will the broadcast networks be able to monetize any playback beyond the first three days? With the portion of delayed viewing reaching critical mass, broadcast executives have been looking to get that viewing accounted for and most importantly, paid for by advertisers. CBS, Fox and the CW have been the most vocal, with CBS honcho Les Moonves asking for up to 30 days of playback viewing to be factored in but so far those arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
And lastly, how big will the fifth season premiere of Duck Dynasty be? The controversy surrounding star Phil Robertson’s suspension following his incendiary comments in a GQ interview and subsequent reinstatement was the biggest story of the holiday season and made even people who had never watched the hit A&E reality series aware of it. The question is whether the Robertsons’ Christian conservative base who rallied behind him and helped get A&E to overturn his suspension, will show up to deliver another ratings record or the alienation of some viewers by the controversial comments will put a dent in the show’s popularity. We’ll find out on January 15.