TV Pilot Season's Hot Trends: Trump-Friendly Military Dramas, Fewer New Shows, Bigger Stars

The total number of pilots ordered currently hovers around 70, down from nearly 90 last year. Says Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe, "Everyone is trying to be more disciplined in their approach to volume."
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Reba McEntire, Zach Braff, Toni Collette

With few TV shows canceled and lots still on the bench, the broadcast networks headed into pilot season this year with fewer needs.

In fact, at press time, the total number of pilots ordered hovered around 70, down from nearly 90 a year earlier. "Everyone is trying to be more disciplined in their approach to volume," Universal Television president Pearlena Igbokwe told THR in January. And who's to blame them: Why place new bets when networks still are holding their breath to see whether they have a late-season hit (whatever that means today) on their hands?

Of the projects ordered, those that walked through the door with a star attached had a clear leg up since they offered a head start during an ultracompetitive casting period that has cable and streaming services swimming in the same talent pool. Toni Collette, Reba McEntire, Felicity Huffman and Zach Braff helped their ABC scripts move through, while Alan Cumming and Mark Feuerstein as well as Craig Robinson and Adam Scott did the same at CBS and Fox, respectively.

Also aiding certain projects was a home-studio advantage. Proof: Eleven of Fox's 12 pilot orders have come from sibling 20th TV, while CBS has bought predominantly from CBS TV Studios. ABC is the most varied buyer, scooping up projects from five of the six major studios, but 14 of its 24 orders still come from ABC Studios. In fact, the desire for ownership is so great now that one studio exec wonders whether he'll even bother shopping projects to non-affiliated broadcast nets next season.

When it comes to content, there have been tonal shifts, too. Among the less subtle: an appeal to Trump's America, be it with a focus on the military or the heartland. All but ABC have a military drama in contention (CBS has two, with S.W.A.T. and a Navy SEALs entry); and ABC has a Kenya Barris comedy about a couple divided by politics and McEntire's drama set in the South. There's plenty of escapist fare as well, though space seems to have replaced time travel as the narrative engine en vogue this season: a pair of comedies (NBC's Spaced Out, Fox's Ghosted) and a couple of dramas (CBS' Mission Control, Fox's Orville) all are in the works.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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