Pandemic Fog Casts a Shadow on Another TV Pilot Season

Craig Erwich Kelly Kahl Charlie Collier Susan Rovner Mark Pedowitz
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As the calendar turns to a new year, that traditionally brings the start of pilot season for the five broadcast networks. Considering that pilot season 2020 was completely upended when production halted in March at the outset of the pandemic, this year is anything but business as usual as many of last season's pilots are still in contention for series pickups.

Among the biggest burning questions facing ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW are when any of the comedies and dramas that are now heating up for series orders or those that have already been picked up will actually air. Some could wind up airing as intended during the current 2020-21 season. Many others could be pushed to the 2021-22 season as the networks hope a vaccine and new administration can bring a return to normalcy.

Then there's the new crop of scripts, many with sizable financial penalties attached, that remain in contention for a pilot order as those comedies and dramas will compete with others that have spent much of the past year awaiting a production start date. That also brings the question of volume. How many of the original ideas and myriad reboots will get a pilot order when each of the networks already have sizable slates of holdovers? ABC has two high-profile reboots in the works from Lee Daniels (The Wonder Years and Waiting to Exhale), plus an L.A. Law sequel and an All My Children primetime project. The CW is prepping a new DC Comics drama from Ava DuVernay and a spinoff from Nancy Drew. NBC has a new Night Court and Finding Forrester competing with scores of other scripts from the likes of DuVernay, Adam Rippon and Blake Shelton, to name a few.

All the networks also have other comedies and dramas they've picked up in the past few months that are awaiting to be scheduled including ABC's Rebel, NBC's Kenan, CBS' United States of Al, The CW's Republic of Sarah and Fox's animated comedy Housebroken. Fox and ABC also have already picked up shows specifically earmarked for the 2021-22 broadcast season. (ABC's multicamera comedy starring Alec Baldwin and Kelsey Grammer and Fox's This Country, which was ordered to pilot a year ago).

The world has changed considerably in the past nine months and networks are also contending with the new realities of production. One question that sources say is front and center heading into pilot season 2021 is if audiences still want dystopian fare as a return to The Before Times is not likely to come until the fall or even 2022. "People don't want things that are too bleak — especially if it's bleak and expensive," one veteran lit agent says. Writers have already adapted to the new realities of production — scripting fewer crowd scenes and such — and now networks are contending with questions involving what projects are possible to film. Can The CW move ahead with a show set on a college campus? Will expensive sci-fi fare move forward as conglomerates across the board have been slashing jobs?

Below is a look at where things at each of the five broadcast networks sit as staffing season starts to heat up in advance of new round of pilot pickups.

ABC
The Disney-owned network already launched Big Sky (and gave it a back order) and next week debuts Kyra Sedgwick comedy Call Your Mother (Jan. 13). Awaiting premiere dates are Topher Grace comedy Home Economics and the Erin Brockovich drama Rebel from Grey's boss Krista Vernoff. Limited series Women of the Movement remains in the works and recently underwent a recasting. Home Economics is expected this spring, while the other two could air sometime this calendar year. On the pilot front, comedy Adopted (from EP Jimmy Kimmel) was rolled to this season and has yet to film; Work Wife, inspired by Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Ripa, has already been filmed. Kids Matter Now was also earmarked to shoot in the fall but sources say star Lucy Liu has now made herself available for other TV roles, making the Shana Goldberg-Mehan workplace comedy's fate less certain. The fates of comedic Western Prospect and the untitled Emily Kapnek half-hour remain unclear; neither has been filmed. Drama Harlem's Kitchen, starring Delroy Lindo, has been passed over; Kevin Costner-produced National Parks Service (which remains uncast) is heating up for a formal pilot order. Medical drama Triage was filmed late last year and remains in contention. The status of plane crash drama Wreckage, which has also not yet been cast, is unclear. ABC, it's worth noting, has a new executive as Hulu's Craig Erwich added oversight of the network after Karey Burke was moved to head up studio 20th Television. Under Burke's regime, the network has shifted to a multiple-wave cycle, meaning the broadcaster will continue to develop and order new projects year-round.

CBS
The Kelly Kahl-led network already launched and ordered more of Chuck Lorre comedy B Positive and has Queen Latifah-led The Equalizer coming after the Super Bowl (Feb. 7) followed by Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice (Feb. 11). Fellow Lorre-produced comedy United States of Al is awaiting a premiere date. All are expected to air this season. On the pilot side, Rose McIver's Ghosts, Julie Bowen vehicle Wilde Things (its third title, BTW) and sibling comedy The Three of Us have all filmed. Patrick Dempsey drama Ways & Means is earmarked to film in January, Sophia Bush vehicle Good Sam will lens in February, with Hannah Simone-led Welcome to Georgia aiming to shoot in March. Jerry Bruckheimer drama Out the Door (which has not yet been cast) and legal comedy Jury Duty (whose cast was released) remain in contention.

Fox
After selling its studio to Disney to and ramping up unscripted and sports, Fox has fewer hours to program and had already reduced its need for scripted originals. Still, the network this month launched Mayim Bialik-led comedy Call Me Kat and has animated comedy Housebroken (from Sharon Horgan and Clea Duvall) awaiting a premiere date. Drama This Country, from Paul Feig and starring Seann William Scott, was picked up to series for the 2021-22 season. On the pilot side, Ginnifer Goodwin-Eliza Coupe comedy Pivoting, dramas The Cleaning Lady, Blood Relative and the Goonies re-enactment are gearing up for table reads as production ramps up on all four. Drama The Big Leap started filming in November but was shut down over the holidays and remains on hiatus like much of the rest of production. Chatter remains strong for a pickup for The Cleaning Lady, starring Elodie Yung. The Charlie Collier-led network, like ABC, has focused on year-round development and isn't expected to greenlight a ton of new pilots. The network also recently picked up a new take on Fantasy Island for summer 2021.

NBC
Here's where things get tricky. NBC is the lone network that no longer has its own dedicated executive after a restructuring gave oversight of the broadcaster to Susan Rovner, who also oversees streamer Peacock and all of NBCUniversal's cable brands. Rovner has yet to make any formal series pickups for NBC, though sources say workplace comedy American Auto and Grand Crew (starring Nicole Byer and from Brooklyn Nine-Nine boss Dan Goor) as well as L.A.-set sci-fi drama La Brea are all likely to get the green light. What remains unclear is if any of those three will air this season or next given that NBC, in success, will be home to the postponed Olympics this summer. NBC this week launched comedy Mr. Mayor — ordered to series a year and a half ago — and has Dwayne Johnson comedy Young Rock likely coming this spring. Long-gestating and redeveloped/recast comedy The Kenan Show, featuring SNL mainstay Kenan Thompson, and sci-fi drama Debris are awaiting premiere dates. Kenan was originally earmarked to air after the Olympics and that could hold true again this year. Debris hasn't filmed more than the pilot and is considered likely to air either in the summer or the 2021-22 frame. With three more of the network's remaining pilot crop likely joining the slate, the network has little room left on its schedule, which will likely impact the volume of 2021 pilot pickups. Those that remain in contention are Jefferies, time-travel drama Echo, dating comedy Crazy For You and Matt Hubbard's Someone Out There. All four pilots will need to be recast as the original talent has all been released. Family comedy At That Age has a new cast under contract but has yet to film. James Wolk's Ordinary Joe and Dan Brown drama Langdon have been filmed and remain in consideration. Meanwhile, Chris Meloni's Law & Order: Organized Crime — which recently changed showrunners after creative challenges — is increasingly likely to air in the 2021-22 season. (L&O: Hate Crimes, ordered years ago and seemingly in purgatory, is likely headed for Peacock.)

The CW
Rookies Walker (Jan. 21) and Superman & Lois (Feb. 23) are dated. Republic of Sarah (previously developed at CBS) and Kung Fu are awaiting scheduling. The network has a lot of high-level development, including new DC fare from Ava Duvernay and a Nancy Drew spinoff but little room on its schedule this season. Next year, however, will see voids created by the conclusion of both Supergirl and Black Lightning. Still, CW CEO Mark Pedowitz has some decisions to make regarding remaining pilots The Lost Boys (will its sixth round in development be the charm?) and college-set Maverick move forward? Arrow spinoff Green Arrow and The Canaries is officially done and it's unclear if Pedowitz will try to extend the life of the since-concluded The 100 as the fate of its prequel is still to be determined.