Pilot Season's Seven Burning Questions

Will the 'Empire' effect continue? How big of a role will the breakout success of 'Making a Murderer' have on next season's fare? THR takes a look at what to expect from the season to come.
'MacGyver'  Courtesy of Photofest

After a handful of off-cycle orders, pilot season officially arrived last week as the broadcast networks do their best to get a leg up on the competition with early orders. Following another late start to development season, many executives spent the three-day MLK holiday weekend catching up on scripts as the coming week is expected to see a frenzy of official pilot pickups.

Judging from some of the early orders, many of the same trends from development season are already carrying over — high-concept comedies, family fare and, yes, reboots.

Here, The Hollywood Reporter looks at some of the biggest burning questions facing broadcast networks and studio executives alike for the forthcoming season.

WILL THE OVERALL VOLUME BE UP OR DOWN?

Outside of Fox, which will have a large American Idol-sized hole on its schedule after the long-running singing competition bows out this season, sources say the other networks don't have a lot of room. CBS went 4-for-4 with its freshman class this fall and has yet to schedule the likely fifth and final season of Person of Interest. (Sophomore CSI: Cyber, meanwhile, is off the schedule come March as the network clears room for Rush Hour.) NBC is expected to need less this year as it has already renewed the bulk of its schedule with Dick Wolf's Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. as well as Blindspot and The Voice. The network also has the Olympics for three weeks in August. And that's not even taking the growing list of reality offerings into account. 

HOW BIG OF A ROLE WILL VERTICAL INTEGRATION PLAY?

A year after ABC and NBC bought nearly exclusively from their sibling studios, many executives are curious to see how many networks will buy from outside their home base. Multiple insiders suggest there will likely be a surge in co-productions if top material from big-name producers based elsewhere makes the cut should those projects move forward. Said one high-level source: "There really is an eye to making sure that there's some ownership stake in a lot of those shows." While multiple studio insiders say that they aren't "concerned" about the rising number of vertically aligned network buys, many admit that it will take an "A+ project" to get on somebody else's air. That said, it may prove increasingly difficult for mid-level writers to score a pilot pickup at an outside studio.

WILL THE EMPIRE EFFECT CONTINUE?

Hands down the biggest trend this past development season, broadcast networks bought big soapy fare along the lines of Fox's Lee Daniels/Danny Strong hip-hop drama Empire, but it's unclear if that will translate into pilot season after critics (and some viewers, naturally) have cooled on its sophomore season. "Everybody bought them," one insider says, eluding to the traditional wave of copycats that rarely work, "but will they actually get picked up now? It's got to be great." Among the projects in contention: CBS' Genes, a high-concept medical soap from an unproduced screenplay by the late Michael Crichton (ER); NBC's funeral-home musical soap from Jason Katims (Parenthood), Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Smash); and ABC's Baghdad circa-2004 soap produced by Shonda Rhimes. While it's too early to tell if soaps — outside of Fox, where the genre remains a big priority for co-chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman — will be among the big bets this season, one thing is certain: Empire's Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and How to Get Away With Murder's Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) will have company. "This year, I think it's all about big, loud characters," a studio exec says. "Those big, loud, really strong point-of-view characters will be the theme that continues this year for sure."  

WILL THIS SEASON FEATURE THE RETURN OF MULTICAM COMEDIES?

So far, only one multicamera comedy has been officially picked up to pilot — NBC's Marlon Wayans' entry Marlon — but multiple sources suggest that the format is in high demand pretty much across the board. "There's definitely been more conversation every year about it," says one exec. Adds another from a rival studio: "It'd be great to have a big multicamera hit comedy — that's what we're all chasing." Among the key players to watch are CBS — which ordered two fewer multicam comedies last season under former topper Nina Tassler. However, new entertainment president Glenn Geller has made a big family multicam comedy his top priority. Also look to NBC (up three vs. a year ago) to make a massive comedy push this season — a given considering the seven comedies already picked up to pilot. Speaking of, the Bob Greenblatt-led network has already cast Kristen Bell and Ted Danson to star in Good Place, the comedy from Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur. Could a return to a Thursday comedy block be in the cards?  

MAKING A … TRUE CRIME PILOT?

Given the breakout success of Netflix's Making a Murderer — and hot on the heels of HBO's The Jinx and podcast Serial — it's unclear if networks will place a premium on the true-crime genre. Broadcasters typically develop fare based on what has worked the previous season — like Empire — and, in this case, have a plethora of Serial-inspired fare to pick from. (Serial itself is already being developed at Fox 21.) CBS has a CIA drama and NBC already has a Taken reboot. ABC, for its part, picked up courtroom anthology The Jury, focusing on a different case each season. Multiple sources say it's fair to expect more long arcs — like ABC's How to Get Away With Murder — and mysteries that unfold over short 13-episode runs.

ALL ABOUT IP — BUT HOW MUCH?

After reboots and TV sequels lined the schedule again this year (Limitless, The Muppets, Uncle Buck, The X-Files, to mixed results and reviews), that likely won't change this pilot season. What is unclear is if networks will again place a premium on big IP (with equally big penalties, in many cases) following the mixed bag of IP this season. In contention are a diverse Nancy Drew and MacGyver at CBS, Behind Enemy Lines at Fox, The Notebook at The CW and Taken, which has already been picked up straight to series at NBC, among others. Blame "Peak TV" for that. "You want to rise above the clutter, and you want what's noisy," one insider says. Adds another: "IP will continue to be important because we find ourselves in a more cluttered environment every year. Having some element that an audience can hook into in advance … there will continue to be value there."

WHAT ABOUT THE CASTING CONUNDRUM?

With more than 400 original scripted series on the air last year, multiple insiders bemoaned the challenges of the casting process as the broadcast networks compete with basic cable, premium and streaming services, all vying for top talent. "It's not like the acting pool became 10 times bigger because there were 10 times more people making shows," says one studio exec, pointing to the same shortage of experienced showrunners, directors, line producers, casting directors and stage space. "We're all fishing out of the same small pool — and that's the one thing that keeps me up at night." To that point, the era of the blind pilot deal for casting directors, line producers and more may not be that far off.

Keep up with all the latest pilot news with THR's handy guide to pilot season.

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