New map to pilot season

Post-strike, more presentations

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With the writers strike nearing an end, it looks as if there will be a pilot season this year after all -- but it won't be the pilot season we've all grown to love and hate.

There will be fewer pilots and there might be more projects ordered straight to series. But there are more tactical twists in store at the broadcast networks.

For instance, CBS and CW are expected to do a lot more presentations in lieu of full-blown pilots this year, especially on the drama side. Presentations are shorter than pilots, faster to make and cheaper for the networks that order them.

The quicker turnaround is said to have been key to CBS' and CW's decisions to go with presentation-heavy slates this year given the time constraints of a truncated pilot season. But sources stress that this is not a long-term development strategy, and the networks will be evaluating their development options on a project-by-project basis.

CBS, CW and Fox have been consistent in ordering presentations as part of their pilot mix. (Fox reportedly also contemplated a switch to more presentations early in the strike but is now said to be leaning toward sticking with the traditional pilot format.)

CBS' promising freshman series "Moonlight" was ordered as a presentation last season. Also a result of a presentation order was the network's long-running family drama "Judging Amy."

Still, studios generally are not fond of the presentation model because they get a lower license fee but their costs are close to what they spend on a full pilot.

The lower license fee limits the networks' financial risk in case they don't pick up the project. But, because of their length, successful presentations have to be reshot before going to series. This proved beneficial to "Moonlight," which was reconceptualized and recast in the summer.

Overall, "the networks save money in failure, so you get the feeling they are sometimes rooting for (the presentations) to fail," a studio source said.

For that reason, negotiating a pilot license fee normally takes longer for a presentation order, and studios sometimes decline the order altogether.

But faced with the post-strike realities of network development where U.S. broadcasters are reaching abroad for cost-efficient series, presentations might not be such a bad alternative.

Add to that NBC's much-touted straight-to-series strategy, which might not be a bonanza for studios either, should it involve more six-episode orders like the one handed out to comedy "Kath & Kim" this week. If they are not vertically integrated, as is the case with "Kath & Kim's" network and producing studio, studios don't always accept six-episode pickups; they're a much harder international sell than 13-episode orders.

Still, an episodic order is better than a pilot order. Which brings us to the one certain thing this strike-impacted pilot season that everyone is cheering about -- there will be fewer pilots.

For years, studios have sounded the alarm about the spiraling cost of network pilots. Now NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker and his News Corp. counterpart Peter Chernin have vowed to do fewer pilots, as few as five or six a year for NBC.

So, will NBC be ordering any more pilots this development season, since it already has handed out eight pilot and four straight-to-series orders? Pilots include comedies "Zip," "Man of Your Dreams" and "Father Ted" and dramas "The Watch" (on which NBC recently passed), the Luke Rider project "Blue Blood," the movie/backdoor pilot "Knight Rider" and "Kings" and series "Kath," "Robinson Crusoe," "The Philanthropist" and "Fear Itself."

What makes things even more intriguing is that NBC was the only broadcast network not to terminate any of its pilot scripts because of the strike, so it has plenty from which to choose.

Fox has two pilots completed, comedy "Hackett" and drama "The Oaks," with J.J. Abrams' "Fringe" shooting and "The FBI" casting.

In another cost- and time-saving move that the networks can adopt in the post-strike world, Fox ordered a table read for animated comedy "The Pitts" and will make a series pickup decision based on that.

CBS' also has several traditional pilots ordered before the strike -- dramas "Eleventh Hour" and "The Meant to Be's" and comedies "My Best Friend's Girl" and "Worst Week" -- while CW has made no orders so far. ABC has four pilots in different stages of production, dramas "Life on Mars" and "The More Things Change" and comedies "Cedric the Entertainer" and "Literary Superstars."