As we rang in 2016, along with Happy New Year comes Happy Pilot Season. January marks the beginning of the crucial final stage in the broadcast development season when pilots are ordered, cast, filmed and tested before the networks make their series picks for next season. It also marks the re-launch of Deadline’s Pilot Panic site.
As has been the case the past couple of years, many scripts have been late, but I get a sense that things are not as bad as last year, which some say was the worst on record in that aspect.
Every year, the broadcast networks vow to get in front of the pilot-season craziness with off-season and early pilot orders, but that rarely happens. This year, there actually were more off-cycle and early pickups, and the January orders started coming several days earlier than last year while the upfronts are almost a week later. This week we should get in the thick of it with a slew of pilot pickups.
NBC has been the most active. Over the summer, it ordered four pilots — Dan Fogelman’s dramedy and three comedies, one from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and two from NBC’s Playground initiative, Imaginary Friend and Sunset Ppl — and gave a straight-to-series order to a drama series based on the Taken feature franchise and to a Mike Schur comedy. Then the network kicked off the traditional pilot season last week by ordering three more comedy pilots: Marlon, starring Marlon Wayans; Powerless; and untitled Matt Hubbard.
ABC joined the fray in the summer with a pilot order to Marvel’s Most Wanted and picked up speed in the fall with three more pilot orders — to comedy Downward Dog, John Ridley’s comedy Presence and Adam F. Goldberg’s comedy Imaginary Gary as well as a series commitment/order to drama Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland. Last week, it picked up drama pilot The Jury.
Fox ordered drama pilots Urban Cowboy and Lee Daniels’ Star in early summer, it has been nearing a pilot order for Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer’s baseball drama and is expected to kick off the rest of its pilot orders momentarily with the Lord and Miller comedy In Time. CBS ordered a new pilot for Doubt over the summer. The network traditionally has been late in its pilot orders, though I hear there has been an effort this year by new entertainment president Glenn Geller to get scripts read and evaluated a little earlier.
What to expect from this year’s crop of pilots? If the early orders are any indications, there is a bet on top auspices who have delivered successful series before.
Also judging by the first January drama order, The Jury, serialized murder mysteries are popular in light of the blockbuster success of podcast Serial and HBO’s The Jinx and, most recently, Netflix’s Making A Murderer, whose pop culture buzz just as pilot pickups are kicking off may influence decisions.
On the business side, a big question is what role ownership will play in pilot pickups. The networks’ new series orders and renewals in May were heavily influenced by vertical integration. I hear that some nets, including ABC, might favor projects they own or co-own, putting a spotlight on indie studios such as Warner Bros. and Sony TV. Two of ABC’s early orders actually went to Sony TV projects, comedy Imaginary Gary and drama The Jury, while two of NBC’s early pickups are from outside studios, the Dan Fogelman drama (20th TV) and comedy Powerless.
Content-wise, serialized dramas seem to continue to be in demand at ABC, with an occasional shot at a procedural, NBC might be looking to add some soapy fare to its lineup while Fox is still after big event-type shows and maybe more genre as well as indie-style comedies. The CW also is expected to stay in its wheelhouse of genre/high-concept dramas.
On the comedy side, high-concept comedies a la The Last Man On Earth continue to be popular, with a heavy skew toward single-camera shows outside of CBS. Additionally, blending live-action and animation is a hot trend, and we already have two high-profile comedies that do it, Fox’s Son of Zorn, which has been picked up to series, and the ABC pilot Imaginary Gary.
IP was very strong in the pitch stage, with movie and series remakes and book-inspired shows accounting for a large portion of the sales. Only two remakes made it to the early greenlights, both based on movies — pilot Urban Cowboy, which is not going forward at Fox, and series Taken at NBC. The TV development business is very reactive so how such shows have fared recently will likely influence the pickup of others. The jury on that is still out on that since Minority Report on Fox didn’t work, but the two other reboots this season, Rush Hour on CBS and Uncle Buck, are yet to premiere. Still, projects based on underlying material are expected to have another strong showing.