TV Pilots: What the Network Orders Reveal About Current Hits and Misses
Broadcast networks pin hopes on big names including J.J. Abrams, Michael J. Fox and Joss Whedon after a grim ratings season.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Last year was supposed to be the year of rebuilding. The landscape had two new chiefs in ABC’s Paul Lee and NBC’s Bob Greenblatt looking to put their stamp on their respective networks, and spend big they would need to do. But 12 months later, that desire to stock up on potential hits hasn’t slowed, with the pilot total nearing 100 -- when younger skewing CW’s eight orders are factored in -- after a lackluster broadcast season devoid of any true home runs. Even CBS, which stumbled some with this past season’s freshman efforts, ratcheted up its orders, with 23 pilots compared with last year’s 16. A review of the orders reveals a continued reliance on formats, adaptations and high-concept fare. Notes one source, “Anything that’s going to give them a leg up in promoting the show.”
Coming off a rough season for new sitcoms (Partners? Friend Me?), CBS has four more comedy pilots than last year. Included are seven single-camera efforts, a genre the network flirted with last season but ultimately avoided. Chuck Lorre's multicam Mom appears to be the only comedy lock. As for dramas, it's more character-first, closed-ended storytelling. The exception is Toni Collette's heavily serialized Hostages, a departure like CBS' Vegas and Swingtown have been in years past. Also noteworthy is a clear attempt at "noisier fare," suggests one source, who counts Josh Holloway's Intelligence and Brandon T. Jackson's Beverly Hills Cop among the potentially clutter-busting concepts.
The network's huge pilot crop suggests NBC brass is keenly aware of its holes. The net is desperate to add noisy fare, be it Carlton Cuse's The Sixth Gun or Rand Ravich's high-concept hour, but Dick Wolf's steady, meat-and-potatoes Chicago Fire indicates that loud isn't the only way to win. Still, NBC is working with big names (the Charlize Theron-produced Hatfields & McCoys, J.J. Abrams' Believe) and hot projects, including one starring The Office's Ellie Kemper and a sought-after half-hour from Joe Port and Joe Wiseman. Although it's still working on what an "accessible" comedy brand looks like, Robert Greenblatt already has ordered 22 episodes of Michael J. Fox's latest sitcom.
ABC isn't veering too far afield in the drama realm, ordering soapy efforts (see Revenge) including mother-daughter sleuth entry Murder in Manhattan, the Sofia Vergara-produced adaptation Killer Women and David Zabel's sudsy Betrayal. Also high on entertainment president Lee's wish list is Joss Whedon's Marvel adaptation S.H.I.E.L.D., which he hopes will become family viewing. When it comes to comedy, ABC is "more all over the place," says one agent, as it again tries to capture the Modern Family audience that Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 didn't. This year's pilot crop includes more adaptations (Spy, from the U.K.) and high-concept projects (Mixology).
Fox is moving away from the female-fronted comedy of recent years, given the low ratings of its Tuesday night block. Instead, Kevin Reilly has put his money on a cop comedy from Parks and Recreation's Mike Schur and a half-hour focused on fathers and sons from the writers of Ted. The net has three more drama pilots than last year, no doubt a response to this season's narrow bench. In the mix are a few Fox-friendly genre efforts, including a Sleepy Hollow adaptation and a project from Fringe's Abrams and J.H. Wyman. Expect shorter, cable-like orders a la The Following as the net looks to air a few more uninterrupted series throughout the season.