Development wheels coming off
Strike could speed networks' shift to year-round cycleOn course to obliterate the 2008-09 development season, the writers strike might very well be the force that finally breaks the broadcast development cycle.
The broadcast networks and TV studios have been trying for years to transition to year-round development, avoiding the mad rush of pilot season and to curb the skyrocketing costs of pilots.
Now the prospect of a long strike might present the biggest opportunity yet to do that. Several networks, including Fox and NBC, are said to be working on new development strategies, including forgoing pilots or reducing them to less expensive presentations as well as borrowing from the cable development model.
"One good thing that might come out of a strike … it would give us an excuse to shake things up," Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly said in October.
Once made for $3.5 million, drama pilots now hover over the $5 million mark, going as high as more than $10 million, with higher production values and bigger-name talent behind and in front of the camera.
Things are not much rosier on the half-hour side, where the switch from multicamera sitcoms to single-camera comedies has jacked up the prices to almost drama levels.
With most networks ordering 20-30 pilots out of more than 100 scripts and picking up about a quarter of them to series, pilots have become a major drag to the conglomerates' bottom line.
Last month, News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin touted to investors the savings in pilot-season costs that his company was making because of the writers strike.
NBC is going further, eliminating pilots in some cases and going straight to series.
"Pilots are ridiculously expensive, you're fighting for the same pool of talent and they don't represent what the series would be anyway," one top network executive said.
Reserved in the past for rare cases like Dick Wolf's "Law & Order" spinoffs, NBC has applied the straight-to-series approach to three scripted projects this year, the hot Tom Fontana drama "The Philanthropist" and two dramas the network picked up at a reduced license fee — the anthology series "Fear Itself" and action-adventure "Robinson Crusoe."
Then there is the cable development model that has been getting a lot of attention by network and studio brass.
In addition to stealing the watercooler factor from broadcast TV, cable shows are financially appealing.
Even for the top-tier ad-supported cable networks, their budgets are 25%-30% lower than those of similar broadcast series. Despite that, they've been able to attract such top talent as Glenn Close (FX's "Damages") Holly Hunter (TNT's "Saving Grace") and Kyra Sedgwick (TNT's "The Closer") as well as big audiences, crossing the 10 million viewers mark in the summer with "Closer." And some of them, including USA Network's "Burn Notice" and "Psych," can even be repurposed on broadcast TV this season if the strike drags on.
This past summer, about a dozen scripted series premiered on ad-supported cable. Seven of them — TNT's "Grace," FX's "Damages," USA's "Notice" and "The Starter Wives," Lifetime's "Army Wives," TBS' "The Bill Engvall Show" and AMC's "Mad Men" — were picked up for a second season.
This fall, 23 scripted series premiered on broadcast. Only eight of them — ABC's "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice," "Samantha Who?" and "Dirty Sexy Money" and CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," NBC's "Chuck" and "Life" and the CW's "Gossip Girl" — have been ordered for a full season.
The pilot-to-series ratio for the cable networks is impressive, too. For example, USA picked up all of its three pilots to series.
Cable networks generally spend more time on development. It took three years between the pitch and the airdate for FX's "The Riches" and "Grace." The cable nets, which order about 15-20 scripts a year and two to three pilots a year, often commission two to three additional scripts after the pilot to see where the series is headed before handing out an episodic order.
Compare this to the year, sometime less, for the broadcast networks and the frantic three months between mid-January and mid-April when their more than 100 pilots are staffed with directors, cast and shot.
"That's trying to paint a masterpiece with a timer behind you, and you can't change or erase anything," one cable executive said. "They're hobbling themselves."
As expensive as pilot development is, broadcast networks tend to discard those that don't make the cut, only rarely bringing them back for another round of development.
That broadcast "trash" has turned into cable treasure. USA got on the map with such signature series as "Monk," "The Dead Zone" and "The 4400," all broadcast leftovers, as is the network's upcoming "In Plain Sight."
Broadcast networks' most common excuse for sticking to the same old development model is that they are in the volume business, and this is the only proven way to handle that.
Yet, this year, USA, FX and Lifetime launched three drama series each, as many as CBS and CW this fall. Additionally, broadcast nets are in the volume business not only because they program more hours of primetime, but also because they don't stick with shows for long.
A broadcast show cancellation after three to four airings is common practice.
Meanwhile, FX took time after its three new series, "Dirt," "Damages" and "Riches," concluded their 13-episode seasons, studying cume and DVR numbers before moving to renew them.
The broadcast networks' trigger happiness when it comes to cancellations stems not only from stronger reliance on ratings than cable, but also from their management policies. It's a revolving door at the top of the broadcast nets, and most executives' bonuses are based on successful shows they've put on the air. So they have a strong incentive to try out a new show rather than sticking with a so-so performer that could eventually grow into a hit.
"The whole system is designed to undermine the creation of long-term assets," one studio exec said.
Even if the networks are committed to changing the development model after the strike, it will be ultimately up to Madison Avenue to make that happen, observes said.
"The networks are responding to the ad buyers," one cable network executive said. "Only if (ad buyers) come out and say: 'We want to buy on a different schedule, buying new shows as you go instead for waiting for all networks and do in bulk,' things will change."
For now, the networks seem locked in a "weird, self-perpetuating vicious cycle," the exec said. "Maybe the strike will force wholesale switch and will shake things."
But there are skeptics who don't think that would happen.
"After the strike is over, we will fall back into the cycle all over again," one studio exec said. "Everybody has been talking about breaking out, but no one has ever done it."