When Parks & Recreation ends its seven-season run on NBC, it will mark the last in-season direct-to-series show to go the distance on broadcast TV.
There have been big straight-to-series breakouts on cable networks and digital platforms over the past few years, like HBO’s True Detective, AMC’s Walking Dead, Netflix’s House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black and A&E’s Bates Motel.
Meanwhile, aside from a couple of dramas developed and produced specifically for summer under a different business model, including CBS’ Under The Dome and Extant and ABC’s Mistresses, there has only been one direct-to-series show since Parks & Recreation to last more than its original order, NBC drama Hannibal, which has made it to a third season after being perennially on the bubble.
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Meanwhile, the list of casualties since the 2008-09 season, when Parks & Rec premiered, include NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show, Law & Order: LA, The Firm, Crossbones, Crusoe, Knight Rider, Kath & Kim, My Own Worst Enemy and The Philanthropist –– the last five ordered by a previous regime as a response to the writers strike, which contributed to the rise of the direct-to-series model on broadcast TV — Fox’s Dads and Terra Nova and ABC’s Missing.
Several more straight-to-series projects have been killed this season: NBC’s Emerald City was scrapped before going into production, while Fox’s Hieroglyph and ABC’s Members Only were axed after filming a pilot. Meanwhile, after not being able to land a decent spot on NBC’s midseason schedule, direct-to-series NBC comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt moved to Netflix. And Fox’s straight-to-series freshman comedy Mulaney has already been downgraded on Sunday and is expected to be cancelled after one season.
I hear there was politics involved in ABC’s decision to kill Members Only. The project, which would’ve been the first series at an outside broadcast network for CBS TV Studios, was sold as a David O.Russell/Susannah Grant drama last January. Russell pulled out soon thereafter, leaving the fate of the series in doubt. In the months that followed, ABC mulled reducing the 13-episode order or scrapping the series altogether. Members Only seemed to regain momentum in the early fall with the casting of John Stamos as the male lead opposite Betsy Brandt and Natalie Zea. In the end, ABC went with the decision it had been previously leaning toward, scrapping the series that it does not need for midseason as its drama dance card is full.
Despite all the talk by some executives about overhauling the development process, the fact is that the broadcast networks have a budget for pilots and like spending it, even on projects that are virtual series locks, like Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Mom, How To Get Away With Murder as well as backdoor pilots like the NCIS and CSI spinoffs. CBS has been the most conservative broadcast network when it comes to employing straight-to-series model outside of summer. “Pilot season is not perfect… but works for us,” the net’s topper Nina Tassler said in January.
Going though a pilot stage vs. direct-to-series is more expensive but there are clear benefits as the decision by Fox and ABC to kill a series after seeing a pilot episode indicate. With a show produced as straight-to-series, it often takes 4-5 episodes to find the tone, look and rhythm, which was the case with BBC America’s Copper, for example. While in cable and digital, networks are generally patient, almost always allowing a full season to play out before making a renewal decision, that is a luxury in broadcast TV that is far more influenced by ratings. If a new series is rejected for the first few episodes, it will be off the schedule before it gets to the “good” episodes in the second half of the order when it may have found itself.
Even with some modestly successful direct-to-series cable/digital series, observers argue that they would’ve benefited by some extra development done in the pilot stage.
Despite the drawbacks, networks continue to go for straight-to-series orders, mostly when betting on a well known underlying properly or A-list creative talent or both, trying to minimize the risk while reaping the economic advantages of a straight-to-series production. Lifetime has Omen prequel Damien, A&E has a remake of the French series The Returned with Carlton Cuse, AMC has Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul with Vince Gilligan and Netflix, which, like WGN America, only employs straight-to-series projects, has a slew, including Judd Apatow’s comedy Love, which has a two-season order.
A decade ago, direct-to-series on-the air commitments were once commanded by prolific creators like David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf and Steven Bochco. Today, the kings of straight-to-series pickups are Ryan Murphy, Cuse, who also has Bates Motel at A&E, and Breaking Bad creator Gilligan, who also has CBS’ straight-to-series Battle Creek. Following the success of Glee and American Horror Story, Murphy has received two straight-to-series orders over the last couple of months, for AHS offshoot American Crime Story on FX and Scream Queens at Fox.
The next test for the straight-to-series model on broadcast will be Fox’s midseason comedies Last Man On Earth and Weird Loners, and, to some extent, Battle Creek and ABC drama Astronaut Wives Club, if they are not bumped to summer, as well as Marvel’s Agent Carter, which is designed for a limited run, bridging the two half-seasons of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Last Man had been getting a lot of praise in the script stage, so its performance will be a testament to how much execution is impacted on bypassing the pilot stage.
A Saturday Night Live star, Poehler, led the last long-running direct-to-series broadcast show to air during regular season, Parks & Rec. We will see if she will be able to pass the torch to another famous SNL alum, Last Man‘s Will Forte.
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