Broadcast networks often say at the beginning of a development season that they intend to buy less so they can focus only on projects they really believe in only to be caught up in the buying frenzy and end up again with a large volume. This year, they seem to have kept their word. There was a noticeable retreat among the nets, with fewer big bidding wars and mind-boggling commitments. “The tagline should be ‘Less is more’,” one agent noted. That has been a trend since the “crazy” by the network executives’ account 2011 pitch season when NBC and ABC had newly installed leaders flush with cash, driving the marketplace into a relentless bidding frenzy.
Understandably, Fox seemed to be particularly aggressive this year as it went though a top executive change and needs a turnaround after seeing its fortunes fall over the past couple of seasons. The network handed out the only straight-to-series order this buying cycle to Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens. The broadcast nets have cooled off on direct-to-series commitments after a string of shows that have not worked or had been scrapped before the premiere, including Fox’s Hieroglyph, NBC’s Emerald City and ABC’s Members Only.
The Scream Queens pickup underscores the power top drama showrunners like Murphy, Vince Gilligan, Carlton Cuse and Howard Gordon yield these days as they are in great demand from both broadcast and cable. Murphy received two straight-to-series orders this fall, for Scream Queens at Fox and American Crime Story at FX (both co-created with Brad Falchuk). CBS’ only recent straight-to-series order outside of its summer dramas went to Battle Creek, from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan who also has Breaking Bad prequel series Better Call Saul at AMC. Fox went with the 12-episode 24 limited series after locking in Gordon as showrunner, as did A&E with straight-to-series orders to Bates Motel and The Returned with Cuse on board.
With many of television’s proven showrunners tied to series (or off doing movies like J.J. Abrams), there was some sense of quiet panic among drama executives, especially early in the buying season. The shortage of available big-name drama writing talent was at least in part responsible for the reversed pattern this season, with comedy buying done first and drama pitching, which traditionally wraps before comedy, lingering well into October, putting pressure on getting hourlong scripts finished and ready for pilot pickup consideration by end of December.
The networks’ reliance on A-list showrunners also applies to comedy, underscored by the fact that the most successful broadcast comedies on TV, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, both hail from seasoned creators, Chuck Lorre and Steve Levitan & Christopher Lloyd, respectively. There was an encouraging uptick of comedy spec buys this season, including from up-and-coming writers. We’ll see if the networks’ interest in breaking new comedy voices carries over to pilot orders.
Networks are always reactive in their development choices — betting on more of what had worked in the fall. It has been a good season for dramas and another miserable fall for comedies. As a result, we may see a stronger emphasis on drama when pilot season comes along (NBC already signaled such a shift for its midseason scheduling plans). Meanwhile, the drought puts extra pressure on comedy executives to find that elusive next half-hour hit.
Being reactive, the broadcast networks bet heavily on romantic comedy series for this fall after a somewhat promising start for About A Boy last spring, towards the end of what was another lackluster season for comedies. That backfired in a big way, with the majority of the new romantic comedies quickly flaming out. The only two full-season orders to freshman comedies this season went to ABC’s Black-ish and Cristela, about a Black and Latino family, respectively. Because the networks believe in the mantra that success begets success, we may see more diverse themes on the networks’ comedy menu this pilot season.
Genre-wise, every year there is a trend that gets super-hot, with everyone on the hunt to get on it. Last year, there was a ton of Wizard of Oz projects. This year, we have more than a dozen medical dramas as all networks loaded up, especially CBS, which has half a dozen medical shows in the works, including two with put pilot commitments, untitled project from Jason Katims and Sarah Watson and Code Black, based on Ryan McGarry’s feature documentary.
And then there are the movie remakes. Pre-sold titles have always been popular with network executives as it helps with marketing and source material gives them a road map for the potential series and extra assurances in case the showrunners are less experienced. Books and foreign formats had been all the rave the last couple of seasons. They were still strong this pitching cycle — series revamps range from Bewitched and The Greatest American Hero to Luther — but were overshadowed by the slew of movie remakes. There have been more than a dozen of them — small-screen adaptations of big-budget blockbusters Minority Report and Rush Hour, which landed big commitments at Fox and CBS, respectively, as well as a slew of redos of 1980s films, including Big, Real Genius, Problem Child, Bachelor Party and Uncle Buck.
Like with any TV series, most adaptations of existing properties end in failure. It remains to be seen whether the glut of movie remakes this season would produce another Buffy The Vampire Slayer or M*A*S*H — series that went on to eclipse the movies they were based on.