Like every other facet of life, the broadcast pilot season has not been the same it was before the pandemic. Back in January, we did a story about the expected historic low volume of pilots, which has since became a reality with 30-something orders, and how some Covid-imposed changes were here to stay. A more refined picture of pilot season has now emerged, and it shows a shift toward cost-effective pilot alternatives such as presentations and writers rooms/backup script orders, more willingness to do pilots outside of the traditional January-May window, with many of the 2022 pilots out of upfront consideration, and a major pullback in comedy.
The latter probably should not come as a surprise given the fact that two of the Big 4 networks, NBC and Fox, had no comedies on the fall schedule this season and a third, ABC, only featured one comedy block with its signature Wednesday lineup.
There is another explanation. As one top TV executive at a big traditional media company put it, every show is now produced with an eye toward its ultimate destination: the company’s streaming platform. A broadcast run is just an initial window. Given that dramas on average tend to do better on streaming than comedy — save for rare outsize performers such as The Office and Friends — it makes sense why there would be fewer comedy series in a broadcast pipeline that eventually leads to a streamer.
In total there are 10 comedy pilots this broadcast season, with dramas outnumbering them 2-to-1. What’s more, almost half of the comedies are not full pilots but lower-cost presentations.
Fox’s only live-action comedy order this season, an untitled Michelle Nader project, is a presentation. It is part of the modified development model the network introduced during the pandemic, which includes comedy presentations in lieu of full half-hour pilots that can get quite expensive when single-camera, and a mix of traditional pilots and writers rooms-to-series orders on the drama.
The network this pilot season is joined by CBS, which also went all-in on presentations with its three comedy orders to sibling CBS Studios. (The network’s only comedy greenlight to an outside studio, Warner Bros TV’s single-camera Rust Belt News, is a full pilot.) I hear that CBS has been tweaking its development models under CBS president and CEO George Cheeks. Along with doing comedy presentations on owned projects, that includes taking CBS Studios drama scripts through writers rooms for straight-to-series consideration with the goal of finding projects that can bypass the pilot stage and go to series that can be produced cost-effectively, at around $3.5 million an episode. It was done this pilot season with The Great Game and HSI: Puerto Rico.
Fox’s drama orders this pilot season — End of Watch, Hell or High Water and Alert — all received versions of script-to-series commitments that involve additional scripts, format or material. Even the CW got in the game with six-script order to Zorro.
The changes likely stem from the dwindling margins in the broadcast business, making a $100 million investment per year for a network in pilots, most of which end up being discarded, unfeasible.
The writers room model — employed widely in cable and streaming — is yet to produce a big success in broadcast as part of the current push; Fox’s Our Kind of People, which came out of it, is heavily on the bubble.
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Straight-to-series orders, made a necessity during the pandemic because of the production shutdown, also have been hit and miss. ABC had one of the hits with David E. Kelley’s Big Sky and is now doubling down on the prolific creator with a new straight-to-series order for Avalon.
Broadcast networks, particularly Fox and ABC, had vowed for years to break the pilot cycle in favor of year-round development and ordering pilots when scripts are ready. Following the massive disruption of the broadcast development process by the pandemic, the Big 4 networks all ordered off-cycle pilots last year. However, only one of them, NBC’s Night Court sequel, got an off-cycle series order. It ultimately did not land on the schedule this season; it is being held for next season.
A couple of off-cycle pilots got a pass including Fox’s The Last Police and NBC’s Someone Out There, with the rest either delayed to film during the regular pilot window or completed but held so they can be evaluated with the rest of the pilots for upfront consideration. That includes ABC’s untitled Alaska drama starring Hilary Swank, the L.A. Law follow-up headlined by Blair Underwood, CBS’ True Lies and NBC comedies Hungry and Lopez vs. Lopez. That will now come handy as many of the freshly ordered pilots won’t be ready for May.
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As Deadline reported in January, pilot scripts were very late this season, leading to late pilot orders. Because of that and other factors, including talent availability, only a portion of the ordered pilots will be delivered and screened before the upfronts, with the rest automatically shifting off-cycle.
Those that will not be for fall schedule consideration include ABC’s drama The Company You Keep and comedy The Son In Law and CBS drama The Never Game because of their respective stars Milo Ventimiglia, Chris Sullivan and Justin Hartley’s commitments to This Is Us; as well as ABC’s Untitled Kay Oyegun, Will Trent and Untitled National Parks dramas. NBC’s dramas Unbroken and Blank Slate will be finished but not ready to be screened while The Irrational, headlined by The Flash’s Jesse L. Martin, Found and Untitled Mike Daniels will be in various stages of pre-production or production in May. (All are firm pilot orders except The Never Game, which is a pilot production commitment.) NBC is reportedly considering opening writers rooms on one or more of the pilots in advanced stages to accelerate productions should they be picked up to series.
Once considered a likely death sentence for a pilot, being pushed beyond May has now become a standard development, one of many changes brought about by the pandemic.
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