Networks quick to pull fast ones

Early series orders at ABC, NBC

The broadcast networks have stepped up the stockpiling of scripted series in face of a potential writers strike.

ABC and NBC both handed out series orders Wednesday, three months ahead of the kickoff of the official pilot season in January.

ABC has given a six-episode order to "Section 8," a sci-fi drama from "X-Men" writer Zak Penn and producers Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun. NBC has greenlighted "The Philanthropist," a drama series from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson.

That follows series orders to the anthology "Fear Itself" (NBC), to Jerry Bruckheimer's "Eleventh Hour" (CBS) and a series commitment to Ryan Murphy's "Queen B" (Fox) — all in the past week.

ABC Studios/BermanBraun's "Section," which Penn will write with Michael Karnow, revolves around everyday people with exceptional neurological abilities recruited to work for a secret branch of a government agency.

Karnow came up with the idea for the show after researching programs employed by the CIA, former KGB and other intelligence agencies that had used people with psychic and other abilities on complicated cases.

While it revolves around people with special powers, "Section 8" will be based in reality, Penn said.

"We're going to be grounded in science fact, drawing on real exceptional abilities one can actually find existing today like Oliver Sacks' neurological anomalies," he said, referring to the well-known cases of the neurologist. "We will also focus on the impact the abilities have on (the characters') personal lives."

While their branch is secret and as such has no name, the accidental agents, aka Alphas, self-depricatingly refer to it as "Section 8," after the clause used for discharge from the U.S. Army because of mental issues.

Under its first-look deal with NBC Uni TV, BermanBraun pitched the project to NBC, which passed on it, as it felt it was too similar to its hit "Heroes."

While there are some parallels to the NBC series, "this show is close-ended, isn't globe-spanning and has none of the same structure and storytelling techniques," Penn said.

When "Section" hit the marketplace, it attracted multiple bids. ABC won the project after offering a six-episode production order off a detailed pitch and clever visual aids by Penn — a graphics package displaying the look and the graphics of the potential show as well as a special effects-enhanced video of what one of the characters on the show would look like: a guy with perfect balance who throws a roll of 10 quarters that land in 10 cups of water. The quarters video made it to YouTube and, where it has quickly amassed millions of views.

"Philanthropist," from the Levinson/Fontana Co., Original Media and UMS, is based on an idea by Charlie Corwin. It centers on a renegade billionaire who uses his wealth, connections and power to help people in need no matter what the risks or costs.

"It's an incredible, inspirational character who is dark and complex but also modern and contemporary," NBC chief Ben Silverman said. "He is a young John Wayne without the uniform; he is James Bond-meets-Robin Hood."

The order for the show hinges on casting that character. Depending on whether the show goes for midseason or fall 2008, it would get a six-to-eight or 13-episode order, respectively, a decision that will be made in December, Silverman said.

Fontana, who penned the pilot script, is exec producing the series with Corwin and Levinson.

Other big projects this development season include Fox's "The Oaks" and "The FBI" as well as CBS' "The Kingdom," all with series commitments.