Television development has always been a reactive business, with the networks jumping on the latest trend, trying to replicate the formula of the most recent thing that worked despite the age-old adage that lightning rarely strikes twice. This season, that would be ethnic shows in light of the success of How To Get Away With Murder, Empire and, to some extent, Black-ish and Cristela.
The timing of Empire‘s surprisingly big launch just as the networks are starting to make their pilot orders is particularly significant and likely to influence their decisions. We are starting to see signs of that in the first pilot orders. Besides Fox’s pickup of Minority Report and CBS’ nod to the Criminal Minds planted spinoff, NBC has been the only action in town so far with three drama and four comedy pilots.
One of NBC’s drama picks went to a project that had been largely flying under the radar — Diana Son’s Love Is Four Letter Word, whose logline reads, “race, sexuality and gender roles collide when three diverse couples put modern marriage to the test.”
While racism had always been a theme in the project, I hear that in the script written by Son, an Asian American playwright and TV writer, the central couple was white. NBC inquired whether Son could make the couple black, an idea she welcomed. With that change made, the script was picked up to pilot.
Two of NBC’s three drama pilots to date have strong ethnic overtones. The other is Silvio Horta’s The Curse Of The Fuentes Women, about three generations of Latino women.
Additionally, NBC last week announced Telenovela, a 13-episode comedy series starring Eva Longoria, which is set behind the scenes of a Spanish-language telenovela, a live production of The Wiz and an eight-hour miniseries about a major event in American black history, the Underground Railroad network used to smuggle slaves from the South to the North.
With pilot orders just starting to come in, we will no doubt see more of that. (By the way, how about Comedy Central’s timing, debuting a late-night show with a black host, Larry Wilmore, tonight?)
As for the broadcast networks, NBC is ahead of the game, and may pick up a couple of more pilots before the holiday weekend is over. Fox is expected to start catching up with a slew of orders this week, and CBS and ABC are late as usual.
Comedy continues to be a source of frustration for the broadcast networks in a season that yielded a number of strong dramas, including HTGAWM, Empire, Gotham, The Flash and Scorpion, and only one promising comedy, Black-ish, which has started to soften in the ratings after a strong start. The Big 4 will try to crack the elusive comedy hit paradigm with a pretty balanced mix of single- and multi-camera pilots.
The fad of direct-to-series orders seems to be fading at the broadcast networks, which loaded up aggressively on series orders across the board last season with Emerald City, Aquarius, Shades Of Blue, limited series The Slap, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (NBC); Hieroglyph, Backstrom, Last Man On Earth, Weird Loners and Mulaney (Fox); Agent Carter, Members Only and Astronaut Wives Club (ABC); and Battle Creek (CBS). With three of the dramas scrapped before air — Emerald City, Hieroglyph and Members Only — the networks seem to be cooling off on the model this year. There have been only two such orders so far this season: to Ryan Myrphy’s drama Scream Queens at Fox and the Eva Longoria-starring comedy Telenovela at NBC. (CBS continues to use the direct-to-series model for summer drama series, recently adding Zoo to its slate of Under the Dome and Extant.)
Going into January, there had been strong indications that networks will scale back, greenlighting fewer pilots than last year. That appears to be the case, with nets aiming at a pilot volume on par or below last year’s levels. Here is a rundown:
NBC has a drama-heavy midseason schedule with only one hourlong comedy block. With so many dramas and so few comedies, the network will go for a comedy-heavy pilot slate. I hear the target is about eight drama pilots and 12 comedy ones.
The drama haul is in line with last year, when the network also made eight drama pilots, in addition to straight-to-series orders to Emerald City and The Slap.
This year, NBC has two late direct-to-series drama from last season that carried over, Shades Of Blue starring Jennifer Lopez and Aquarius starring David Duchovny. (The latter was originally slated for this midseason but has not been scheduled.)
On the comedy side, NBC is retreating after commissioning a whopping 17 pilots last season, including a Jerrod Carmichael presentation, in addition to giving a direct-to-series order to Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which recently migrated to Netflix.
CBS is looking to pick up 8-9 pilots on both the comedy and drama side. Last year, the network made seven drama pilot in addition to the straight-to-series order to Vince Gilligan-David Shore’s Battle Creek and 10 comedy pilots, only picking up two of them to series, The McCarthys and The Odd Couple.
The network’s drama needs are not great — it already renewed three freshman drama series for next season, Scorpion, Madam Secretary and NCIS: New Orleans. Despite CBS’ comedy woes, with The McCarthys struggling and The Millers cancelled, the network’s comedy pilot haul will likely be down from last season, an indication that the network is probably eyeing a drama-skewing lineup.
ABC is expected to pick up at least 10 comedy and that many drama pilots, a couple fewer than the numbers on each side last year. In 2015, ABC ordered 13 comedy pilots, including the Cristela low-budget presentation, and 11 drama pilots in addition to the direct-to-series orders to Agent Carter, Members Only and The Astronaut Wives Club.
Fox is looking to pick up seven comedy and that many drama pilots. It’s hard to make comparisons to last season because the network back then experimented with a new development model that promised to bypass pilot season. Fox produced five comedy pilots, plus straight-to-series orders to Mulaney, Weird Loners and Last Man On Earth. The network made three drama pilots, all of which went to series — Gotham, Empire and Red Band Society — in addition to series orders to Backstrom and Hieroglyph and various series-type commitments to other projects that didn’t go forward, including Home and Runner.
The CW, which already renewed eight series for next season, including both of its fall freshmen, The Flash and Jane The Virgin, is staying on track with a plan to pick up 5-6 drama pilots. Last season, it made five traditional pilots and one planted spinoff of Supernatural.