Commentary: Pitches way down this summer, say executives

Writers claim studios only buying 'prepackaged stuff'

Ask and you shall receive, right?

Not exactly, at least according to the TV industry bible, summer 2008 edition.

Network executives have complained privately that they rolled out the red carpet in anticipation of a flood of pitches after the WGA strike, but so far all they've seen is a trickle.

"We're open for business, but no one is coming to pitch," one network topper says.

Fox, NBC and ABC have indicated that they are permanently dropping the traditional development cycle in favor of a year-round one featuring an April upfront presentation (NBC), a split development season with pilot pickup sessions in May and December (Fox) and three pickup "tentpoles" in fall, January-March and summer (ABC).

So summer should be a busy buying season. Last year, when the networks had an additional incentive to stockpile in case of a writers strike, business was brisk. But this summer, when the nets have the additional incentive of feeding off-cycle development, it's been languishing.

Don't blame the writers, agents say. It might be "ask and you shall receive," but it depends how you ask, they argue.

"It's the networks' fault," one agent says. "They raised the bar a lot this year; they're only buying prepackaged stuff."

Indeed, most of the higher-profile projects picked up so far this summer are based on existing properties. Others had talent attached.

ABC nabbed the Argentinean sibling crime drama "Brothers & Detectives" and the French family comedy "Don't Do This, Don't Do That," and Fox is adapting the Argentinean body-swapping drama "Lalola" and the Australian spy drama "The Informant." CBS is developing a contemporary remake of "The Streets of San Francisco" and a drama based on a character from a James Patterson best-seller. In June, Fox handed out a pilot order to "Emancipation of Ernesto," a comedy project that had Wilmer Valderrama attached to star, while NBC picked up to pilot the drama script "LAPD," which had two heavyweights -- producer John Wells and director Christopher Chulack -- on board.

To make things even tougher for writers, not only do the pitches have to be perfect this year, but so do the loglines. Following Fox's lead, more networks are asking agents to e-mail a logline for the project beforehand and would only take the pitch if they like the one-liner.

This is a time-saving measure that certainly helps whittling lame premises. But it also favors astute salesmen over fresh-voiced scribes who might not be able to formulate their ideas well in one sentence. Would any of these loglines -- "A show about nothing," "Six twenty-something friends in New York," "Mob family in New Jersey" -- have made the cut? They certainly don't scream "pop culture phenomena" until you've met with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Marta Kauffman and David Crane and David Chase to hear their vision.

In addition to networks being hard to please, there probably is some strategy at play among the writers and their reps that is contributing the lighter pitch activity.

Historically, projects that spark bidding during the summer don't seem to fare as well in the long run as those sold during the traditional pitch season, which kicks off after Labor Day. Of all high-profile projects picked up last summer, only one, "Worst Week," went to series, and none of those bought on pitch even made it to pilot.

On the other hand, most of the marquee projects taken out in the fall, including Fox's "Fringe" and "Dollhouse," CBS' "Eleventh Hour" and NBC's "The Philanthropist," got on the air.

Two of last year's success stories, "Worst Week" and "Eleventh Hour," are based on international formats, a trend that has accelerated in the past six months. It couldn't be more fitting that the country of immigrants now has a television pipeline dominated by immigrant series.

But be careful what you ask for, because the line between a great exchange of ideas and recycling gets blurry. Maybe it's just me, but I feel that 20 versions of the hit Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty, la Fea," including three in the U.S. -- the original, the English-language "Ugly Betty" and the Spanish-language "La Fea Mas Bella" -- might be a bit too many.

The way things go, maybe the hottest property on the market next summer will be a Russian format for a spinoff from their local version of "Betty."