Pilot season does the time warp

Throwback series among surprises this go-round

"Rockford Files" and "Hawaii Five-O" are flying high, procedurals are hotter than ever before, multicamera comedies are staging a comeback and veteran sitcom directors James Burrows and Pamela Fryman are the most sought-after helmers with three projects each.

"It feels like we're going back in time -- but in a good way," one TV lit agent said about this year's pilot season.

In addition to this dial-back to the '70s, networks are turning back time on the number of pilot orders. After a post-WGA strike nosedive in the number of orders in 2008 to 61, down from 100-plus the previous three years, the tally has been edging up -- to 74 last year and 83 so far this season.

There are plenty of other surprises as well.

First, British formats are out, but British creators and personalities are in.

For the first time in a decade, there is no broadcast pilot based on a U.K. format after NBC's "Prime Suspect" remake was pushed because of difficulties casting the lead.

Sparked by the success of "The Office" and deregulation in the British TV industry in 2004 that handed producers distribution rights to their series, adaptations of British series reached a peak in 2007 with eight pilots. That number went down to six the next year and has declined since.

The reason for the cool-off is twofold. First, there hasn't been a hit U.S. series based on a foreign format since NBC's "The Office" and ABC's telenovela-inspired "Ugly Betty." That fact wasn't lost on the broadcast nets, which didn't pick up a single new series last May based on a foreign format. Additionally, format dealmaking has become increasingly difficult as networks and rightsholders squabble over control of international territories.

Three foreign formats still made it to the pilot stage this season and, in another surprise, two came from non-English-speaking Israel, population 7 million: CBS' drama "The Quinn-tuplets" and Fox's comedy "Traffic Light." (The third, ABC's drama "Generation Y," is based on a Scandinavian format, also a territory rarely mined by U.S. broadcasters.)

India, too, is making a breakthrough post-"Slumdog Millionaire" with two Indian-themed comedy pilots: "Nirvana" on Fox and "Outsourced" on NBC.

Still, while British formats fizzled this year, two pilots with a British pedigree and a similar theme -- a Brit coming to the U.S. -- made the cut: ABC's comedy "Awkward Situations for Men," starring Danny Wallace, and CBS' untitled Ant Hines comedy starring Paul Kaye.

Also unexpected this season was NBC's dramatic change in attitude toward outside suppliers.

"Now there is a shift back to where the best projects are, not just the best projects that the network owns," one studio topper said.

During the past few years, NBC had looked inward, working almost exclusively with its sister studio. To make things worse, the network strained its longtime ties with major nonaligned supplier Warner Bros. TV in the fall when it pulled the plug on the studio's cop drama "Southland."

Fox's "Keep Hope Alive"
"We wanted to repair our reputation," NBC scripted chief Angela Bromstad said, adding that "it's great to have the strength of Warner Bros. back in the fold."

Indeed, the Peacock bid on and landed four of the biggest projects to hit the marketplace this development season, all from Warner Bros.: J.J. Abrams' "Undercovers," Jerry Bruckheimer's "Chase," David E. Kelley's "Kindreds" and Paul Reiser's "Next."

Then it ordered the ABC Studios-produced comedy "This Little Piggy," the only instance of cross-pollination between a vertically integrated broadcast net and in-house production company this season.

The network also stepped in to pick up 20th TV's comedy pilot "Friends with Benefits" when ABC passed on the project.

To top it off, NBC gave a green light to the untitled John Eisendrath drama pilot days after parting ways with the producer behind it, Conan O'Brien.

Eisendrath admitted that he wondered whether NBC would go ahead with a project from O'Brien's Conaco following the two sides' acrimonious divorce.

"I was appreciative and impressed that they set aside any potential awkwardness and made a decision based on the material," he said.

On the casting side, the biggest surprise this season is the breakthrough for minorities as drama leads.

After years of pledging a commitment to diversity onscreen, broadcast networks handed the top roles on six drama pilots to non-Caucasian actors: The spy couple at the center of Abrams' "Undercovers" for NBC is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe, Forest Whitaker is the lead on CBS' "Criminal Minds" spinoff, Laz Alonso tops the Fox action drama "Breakout Kings," Freddy Rodriguez headlines CBS' Brett Ratner-directed CIA drama "Chaos," Maggie Q plays the title character in the CW's "Nikita" reboot and Roselyn Sanchez is the lead in ABC's Latino-themed "Cutthroat."

By comparison, last year's crop of pilots included only one co-lead by a minority actor: "NCIS: Los Angeles," starring LL Cool J. The season before that, there were no pilots toplined by minorities.

Part of the reason for the diversity, which includes the casting of Blair Underwood as the U.S. president in NBC's drama pilot "The Event," might be the Obama Effect, which also would explain the popularity of the president's hometown, Chicago, as the setting for four pilots this year.

In another surprise, AFTRA dominates the pilot field with virtually 100% representation.

Fears of a possible SAG strike last spring led to a swing from 90%-plus SAG pilot representation in 2008 to 90%-plus AFTRA affiliation a year later; however, with no labor stoppage on the horizon and a more moderate regime installed at SAG, the leading actors union was expected to regain pilot ground.

Instead, SAG has been pushed out of the primetime picture -- just as in the '70s and '80s, when AFTRA was dominant as shows were filmed on videotape.

Which brings us back to the time warp.

While the '80s were hot last year with remakes of "Parenthood," "The Witches of Eastwick" and "V" and the '80s-set "Gossip Girl" spinoff, networks have shifted back a decade this year with "Rockford," "Hawaii" and the '70s-set ABC comedy "Funny in Farsi."

If the rollback continues, '60s remakes could be in order for next season. Perhaps Ron Howard, behind the "Parenthood" revival at NBC, will re-imagine "The Andy Griffith Show."
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