Pilot Season: How TV Studios Are Adapting to New Priorities

Craig Hunegs, David Stapf and Pearlena Igbokwe_Split - Getty - H 2020
Getty Images

Nearly a year after Disney's $71.3 billion Fox acquisition closed, ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox Television — part of the Disney Television Studios collective — are making a major shift in priorities.

In a strategy that sources say was first broached more than a year ago — before Craig Hunegs was installed in his then-newly created role as Disney TV Studios president — the mega-studio is pivoting away from broadcast as its top priority. The biggest proof of the change? The current pilot season. ABC Studios and 20th TV have a combined 17 sales between them. While that combined tally is good enough to lead all six studios this year, it’s down from a combined 33 orders last pilot season, when ABC Studios led all six majors with 18 sales and 20th TV finished third with an equally impressive 15. Pilot season 2019 wrapped pickups less than a month before 20th TV and networks including FX and NatGeo became part of Disney (and before Disney TV Studios began reporting both of its studios together). This season, ABC Studios again has all of its sales to … ABC. 20th TV, meanwhile, currently has six pilots in the works — including a straight-to-series order at ABC (which it boarded as a co-production with A+E Studios) — as well as at Fox and NBC, with additional pickups a distinct possibility.

Sources say the shift away from broadcast is part of a larger mandate for ABC Studios and 20th TV as both expand to focus first on being a content supplier to Disney's growing number of platforms. Those include streamers Disney+ and Hulu, as well as ABC, the younger-skewing basic cable network Freeform, the recently acquired FX and NatGeo. While the new priority is to supply to in-house outlets, Disney TV Studios will continue to sell to outside networks, streamers and, yes, broadcasters.

It's also worth noting that part of the overall declines is the fact that the broadcast networks are collectively ordering fewer pilots. This year, the five networks have picked up 60 pilots so far — down six year-over-year from 2019's 10-year low — as both Disney’s ABC and independent broadcaster Fox Entertainment are expanding beyond the traditional January-May pilot season. ABC, under entertainment president Karey Burke, will grow development to what she calls "second cycle" and will look to central suppliers like ABC Studios and 20th TV, and will stay open for scripts and pilot orders after pass calls go out in May and when a new crop of talent will open up.

The "second cycle" move also illustrates that broadcast pilot season is no longer the center of the TV season as it has long been. (Somewhere, former Fox president Kevin Reilly is dusting off his "RIP, Pilot Season" TCA slide and taking a victory lap.) While broadcast networks are beginning to open up to year-round development, basic and premium cable networks — and streamers, most notably — have been doing so for years (and gobbling up top writers and stars at the same time). What's more, the Disney strategy arrives as broadcast hits aren't the home runs that they used to be when studios could cash in with lucrative syndication deals. Now, the syndication market is virtually nonexistent and studios are increasingly looking to keep their originals in their own corporate ecosystem rather than selling streaming rights to competitors like Netflix.  

With six platforms to supply, Disney TV Studios has bulked up with writer-producers who are focused on multiple platforms and not exclusively broadcast. Case in point: Dan Fogelman — creator of the No. 1 scripted drama on broadcast with This Is Us renewed his deal with 20th TV last year and his first new show since finding gold with the NBC family drama isn't for a network but rather for the Disney-controlled Hulu. Sources also note that Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, who inked his own new nine-figure deal with 20th TV last year, may also look beyond broadcast for his follow-up to ABC's Emmy-winning favorite. Drew Goddard, who signed with 20th TV and followed Jonnie Davis to ABC Studios last year, will also have his first show under his eight-figure pact be for an outlet other than broadcast.

Also interesting is that of all the media behemoths, Disney in particular has the most mouths to feed given that FX, Freeform, Disney+ and Hulu consider scripted programming a high priority. Warner Media, by comparison, has the May launch of the streamer HBO Max, HBO proper and basic cable networks TNT, TBS and TruTV. Of those, the latter three are slowly reducing their investment in scripted originals while fellow Warner brand DC Universe is seeing its originals tested at both HBO Max and The CW (which Warners co-owns with CBS). Warner Media-backed Audience Network confirmed months-long rumors in January that it would exit the scripted space, with originals possibly also moving to HBO Max. NBCUniversal, meanwhile, has NBC, and, in April, the streamer Peacock joining basic cable networks Syfy, USA, Bravo and E! Of those, Bravo and E! are both officially out of scripted, while USA and Syfy are increasingly focused on unscripted. Then there's the re-merged ViacomCBS, which is expected to grow CBS All Access to feature content from across Viacom brands including Comedy Central, Paramount Network, Showtime, Nickelodeon and MTV. CBS TV Studios, for its part, has been focused on supplying content to CBS All Access, Showtime and outside buyers like Netflix (Unbelievable).

As for Disney TV Studios, proof of its evolution can also be seen in its recent executive moves. Last week, Tracy Underwood — who, since 2013, has led the cable- and streaming-focused ABC Signature Studios — expanded her purview to include ABC Studios, reporting directly to Davis. The latter exec moved over from 20th TV and replaced Patrick Moran atop ABC Studios and has a history of selling to outside networks. Meanwhile, Carolyn Cassidy was promoted from within and now oversees 20th TV.

Collectively, Disney TV Studios has a whopping 72 series in production this year. Those include Little Fires Everywhere, the Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington drama that landed at Hulu after igniting a massive bidding war; Epix's recently renewed Forest Whitaker-led drama Godfather of Harlem; and Central Park, the animated series from Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard that Apple picked up with a two-season order amid stiff competition.

In all, Disney TV Studios' shift away from being focused first on broadcast is the latest sign of the changing times in the Peak TV era, where media conglomerates like Warner Media and NBCUniversal are increasingly focused on preparing for the streaming future and, well, trying to cut through in a landscape that in 2019 featured more than 530 scripted originals.

As for why 20th TV's tally is so low compared specifically with sibling studio ABC, sources attribute the significant decline (from 15 to 3) to the management change that happened halfway through development season. Cassidy has spent the time since building her executive ranks, including the January hire of Dan Kupetz to replace Howard Kurtzman as head of business affairs after the latter announced his retirement. (Kurtzman will remain on through June.)

Here is this year's full broadcast pilot season studio breakdown:

Universal TV: 16 (14 in 2019)
Pearlena Igbokwe's studio takes over first place amid Disney's strategy change. Of UTV's 16 sales, 13 of them are for NBC. The studio also has two pilots at CBS (the comedy Please Hold for Frankie Wolf and the Equalizer reboot), with the latter as a co-production with CBS TV Studios. The studio also took over sole possession of first place on this list after a late-season sale to ABC from Nahnatchka Khan (a co-pro with 20th TV). UTV is one of only two studios to see total volume increase this season.

CBS TV Studios: 16 (17 in 2019)
The David Stapf-led studio ties for first place — up from second a year ago — despite a slight dip year-over-year. Of its sales, 10 are for home network CBS — with half of those co-productions. Speaking of the co-pros, CBS TV has business with four other studios this year: Lionsgate/BBC, MGM, A+E and Universal TV.

Warner Bros. TV: 13 (9 in 2019)
Peter Roth ceded day-to-day oversight of WBTV immediately after upfronts last year, so this has been new presidents Susan Rovner and Brett Paul's first season at the helm (though the newly promoted Roth still oversees Rovner and Paul, reporting to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff). Paul and Rovner did what only two of the six studios did this year: see volume increase. The indie studio has sales to every broadcaster — save for NBC — with three at CBS, four at Fox and one at ABC (care of Greg Berlanti). Speaking of Berlanti, the mega-producer with 22 scripted shows already in the works, landed four pilot orders this season. Three of those are at The CW, where his programs already make up more than two-thirds of the younger-skewing net's primetime lineup. (And yes, one of the six straight-to-series orders this season is for a Berlanti show, The CW's Superman & Lois.)

ABC Studios: 11 (18 in 2019)
20th TV's Jonnie Davis took over for Patrick Moran last summer and already has pilots in the works with some of ABC Studios' most important folks: Jimmy Kimmel, Ryan Seacrest and Grey's Anatomy boss Krista Vernoff. And yes, moving from first to fourth on this list in a year is by design. (See above analysis.)

20th Century Fox TV: 6 (15 in 2019)
Carolyn Cassidy sits alone at the helm after she was tapped to replace Jonnie Davis and his longtime 20th TV co-president Howard Kurtzman retired. Cassidy has spent the past six months building her own executive team (and replacing Kurtzman, who leaves in June) and fortifying relationships across town. And yes, this drop-off was by design, too. (See above analysis.)

Sony Pictures TV Studios: 2 (6 in 2019)
If Disney TV Studios is just now pivoting away from broadcast and more to streaming and cable, Sony TV can take some solace in beating them to the punch. The indie studio remains firmly ensconced in last place on this list with two sales this year. That's down from six a year ago, when that was considered a huge deal for Sony. The studio, overseen by co-presidents Jeff Frost, Jason Clodfelter and Chris Parnell, continues to get leaner after chairman Mike Hopkins saw the writing on the Sony, er, streaming wall and jumped ship earlier this month for top a job with Amazon's Jeff Bezos following a less than three-year tenure. Oh, and in keeping with tradition, Sony sacrificed sizable ownership stakes to get both of its pilots on the air (at ABC).

About those indie studios …
CBS wasn't the only network looking beyond its top competitors for the next big thing (and IP). Lionsgate TV has three sales this year, all of them co-productions: with CBS TV Studios and BBC Studios on the CBS comedy Ghosts; with ABC Studios on the Topher Grace vehicle Home Economics; and with BBC Studios on Fthe ox comedy This Country. … A+E Studios has two, a co-production with 20th TV on ABC's straight-to-series The Big Sky and with CBS TV Studios on The Lincoln Lawyer, which has a series production commitment. Both are from the legendary David E. Kelley. … MGM TV also has a pair set up this season, both co-productions: with ABC Studios on Thirtysomething(else); and with CBS TV Studios on the Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice. Rounding out the pack are Legendary TV, which will retain full ownership of the NBC drama Debris; and ViacomCBS-owned Paramount TV, which has Fox's Melissa Leo genealogy drama Blood Relative.

Keep track of all of this season's pilot orders, castings and eventual series orders with The Hollywood Reporter's handy guide.