Back on auto pilot

Despite the recession, the development process has been pretty much business as usual

The recession is hilarious. Or at least the broadcast TV networks are hoping it is, with downturn-themed comedies and a re-emphasis on procedural dramas emerging as major trends this pilot season.

But the most significant development is that the traditional pilot season is happening at all. After almost being obliterated last year by the WGA strike, many thought the decades-old mad dash from January to May finally would be scrapped in favor of year-round development.

"What struck me the most is how much things are exactly the same," a top studio executive says. "We're still producing the same pilots, seeking the same talent and going through that lemming-style behavior. The process is so tiring."

The most visible difference now is the cost-trimming at each of the networks and studios.

There are fewer pilots being readied than in recent years (though some of that is being offset by more off-season orders), many more are being shot in less expensive locales with alluring tax incentives, and network and studio execs are demanding that even top talent lower their fees in ways that would have been unheard of earlier in the decade.

At 72 ordered pilots, the nets are significantly below the 100-plus pilot heights of 2005, 2006 and 2007. But the total is up from the 61 greenlighted at the same time last year.

It's business as usual at CBS as well as at ABC, which returned to filming pilots in the regular springtime frame after pushing pilot production last year to summer because of the strike.

Fox has been the most committed to year-round programming and has only nine pilots for May consideration.

NBC, which also ordered several pilots off-season, is back in the game after mostly stumbling with the direct-to-series approach last year. The network's tally of 11 pilots also reflects its decreased needs for fall, when the 10 p.m. hour will be surrendered to a Jay Leno-hosted talk show.

Last year's pilot season was scarred by the effects of the strike. This year's cycle has been impacted by the economic crisis.

"There is great collective consciousness of cost-effectiveness this pilot season," Warner Bros. TV's Peter Roth says.

The broadcast networks had talked about curbing costs for years, only to throw financial restraint out the window when chasing a project they wanted.

"This year, the networks are showing great discipline on the financial side and are being more open than ever about cost-saving efforts on each pilot," 20th TV chairman Dana Walden says.

After rising steadily each year to an average of $6 million-$6.5 million last season, budgets for drama pilots this year were flat or down to $5 million-$5.5 million, with networks also lowering license fees. For series, the budget cuts are running several hundred thousand dollars an episode.

The trims have hit both above and below the line.

Talent deal-making is so tough now that actors across the board have been offered fees below their normal quotes.

"The quotes of the past that reflected the inflated marketplace are no longer relevant and applicable," a top studio exec says.

Below the line, savings comes mainly from moving productions outside Los Angeles, especially on the more costly drama side.

At 20th TV, only one drama pilot, the Dave Hemingson hour for ABC, is being shot in L.A.

"We are always balancing the creative needs of the shows with the economic realities of the business," 20th TV chairman Gary Newman says.

Fox's "Da Vinci Code"-style "Masterwork" will film in Prague because it's a globe-trotting adventure -- and it doesn't hurt that the Czech Republic offers a Euro backdrop at a far lower cost than locations in Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Fox's "Maggie Hill" will be shot in Toronto as a stand-in for New York for budget reasons.

Canada, once a location reserved for cable movies and lower-budget sci-fi series, is becoming a major draw for broadcasters with its lucrative tax incentives and exchange rate.

However, studio execs stress that going to Canada to shoot a pilot doesn't mean an entire series will be shot there. With the pilot-to-series ratio dishearteningly low, producers are looking to lower their financial exposure in deficiting a pilot that likely won't be picked up.

Within the U.S., popular locations for pilot shoots this year include Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit, all for tax incentive reasons. California's recent passage of incentives might be a boon for cable series, but not for broadcast TV production.

Producers are learning to do more with less in these leaner times, adopting lessons from last year's strike-ravaged pilot season.

"Last year, when we were pressed against the wall with little time, it showed us what we are capable of doing in producing our pilots efficiently," CBS Par's David Stapf says. "It forced us to be creative, and that success is comforting because there is no reason we can't do it again."

In addition to imposing restraint on the business side, the recession has played a role in creative choices.

"The networks normally would develop a core number of projects that are safe bets and then would order a few scripts that are out of the box," a studio executive says. "When the belt-tightening started, the first thing that went away were the fringe projects."

Procedurals -- crime, medical and legal -- dominate the nets' drama pilot orders. In addition to being safe bets that have thrived in previous downturns, it reflects what worked this past fall: CBS' breakout "The Mentalist," a crime procedural.

Things are a little different on the comedy side. Multicamera projects are on fire at CBS, but other nets again are enamored with more expensive single-camera laffers.

Everyone, though, is searching for the next generation of multicamera comedy.

20th TV is looking to duplicate the success of its CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother," filmed on multiple sets with no live audience, with the similarly shot "Two Dollar Beer."

Sony is making the most aggressive push of any studio in the comedy area, putting almost all of its eggs -- eight out of nine pilots -- in the half-hour basket. Six of the eight are multicamera.

"There is a real opportunity to have a resurgence of multicamera comedy on television," Sony TV's Zack Van Amburg says.

The studio's CBS comedy pilot "The Fish Tank," originally developed as a single-camera, was converted into multi upon request from the CBS.

Recession woes also are a recurring theme in the loglines of pilots, mostly on the comedy side, with such projects as ABC's "Canned," about friends losing their jobs on the same day; a half-hour starring Kelsey Grammer as a Wall Street executive losing his job; and "This Little Piggy," about adult siblings moving in with their older brother after falling on hard times.

In another recession-flavored trend, the 1980s -- the decade of the last major recession -- also are back.

Although NBC pulled the plug on "Lost in the 80s," remakes of '80s movies "Parenthood," "The Witches of Eastwick" and the miniseries "V" are moving ahead at NBC and ABC. Even the CW is going retro with the "Gossip Girl" spinoff "Lily," set in 1980s Los Angeles.

Six years into the Iraq War, veterans also are popular characters, with a number of pilots -- including NBC's "Day One" and "Mercy," CBS' "House Rules" and USA's "Operating Instructions" -- featuring them as leads.

And on the heels of one of the most intriguing presidential campaigns to date, the Beltway proved a hot drama setting for CBS' "House Rules," ABC's "Inside the Box" and CW's "Body Politic."

In another trend, former execs-turned-producers are making a strong showing.

Sony TV-based Tantamount, Eric Tannenbaum's company with Kim Tannenbaum and writer Mitch Hurwitz, boasts five pilots, more than half of Sony's haul. Also landing multiple projects: Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman's BermanBraun (four) and Jamie Tarses' FanFare (two, including the pushed ABC comedy "Planet Lucy").

This pilot season was marked by NBC and ABC merging operations with their sibling studios. The restructuring was done after scripts already were ordered, but perhaps it is a sign of things to come that after the merger, NBC picked up only two pilots from an outside supplier -- both from Sony.

"We see this as a great opportunity -- fewer studios are selling to each network," Sony TV's Jamie Erlicht says of the consolidation. "I think closing the doors to all outside suppliers would mean closing the doors of the networks."

Sony and WBTV landed pilots at each of the Big Four networks (NBC picked up WBTV's "Legally Mad" before the December network-studio merger).

CBS proved the most adventurous, greenlighting pilots not only from the two indies but also from studios affiliated with a competitive network: the comedy "The Karenskys," produced by Universal Media Studios, and "House Rules," from ABC Studios.

The season also marked a big shift from film to digital production and from SAG to AFTRA, which for the first time emerged as the dominating actors union, representing more than 70% of the projects.

The shift was triggered by the uncertainty surrounding SAG's TV/theatrical contract with the producers and the threat of a strike.

To get an AFTRA affiliation for their pilots, studios had to opt to shoot them digitally. With improvements in digital technology like lighter cameras and the added advantages of easy digital effects, it might well be the way of the future, 20th TV's Newman says.