TV Brain Drain: Development Season Off to Slow Start

TV Furnace Illo - H 2014

TV Furnace Illo - H 2014

Top writers are scarce, and executives say they are considering new options

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The doors are open, but where are the pitches?

That's the question asked in TV studio and network halls in recent weeks as executives grapple with an increasingly crowded landscape. Side effects of the boom in scripted programs — cable alone aired 144 original series in 2013, up from 29 a decade earlier — are a smaller pool of available writers and a schedule that no longer fits with the broadcast networks' traditional pitch season of July 4 to Labor Day.

"It's a great time to be representing talent because there are multiple suitors for a TV writer," says ABC Studios executive vp Patrick Moran. "But for us who, come July, start calling agents saying, 'We'd love to be in business with some of your clients,' and finding out that most of them are busy, it definitely puts more pressure on us."

For Moran, it has meant expanding the go-to talent field beyond those who have staffed on network shows to people with whom TV chiefs weren't previously familiar, be they playwrights or feature writers. The challenge Moran and others have found, however, is that the networks are still committed to scoring projects from the proven TV powers like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Howard Gordon.

In that spirit, multiple sellers note that packaging projects with creator, cast and sometimes even directors in place has become an increasingly popular strategy, as it has grown harder to lock down talent later in the season when so many outlets are vying for them. "It's that idea of trying to make things undeniable," explains Universal Television executive vp Bela Bajaria of the appeal of walking in the door with talent attached.

Adds Moran, who admits he has even thought about developing single-lead series over ensembles to avoid the pilot-season gridlock: "Last year I remember one network executive telling me, 'God, I would take a pretty good script that had an actor attached versus a great script that did not.' "

Though it remains early, network themes have started to emerge: no period pieces at CBS, character-driven over case-driven procedurals are of interest at ABC, and big unique worlds and genre are in at NBC. Still, the more detailed target lists — "We want a female hospital drama," or "We need a buddy cop show" — have become less common, with execs acknowledging they aren't sure what they want, much less what will work. Questions about Fox under newly installed chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman have contributed to the delay.

Of course, the 2013 buying season started off just as slowly, ultimately picking up in September rather than August. "I still think we'll end up with the same amount of volume as we did last year, it just may be spread out in different places or done in a different way," says Bajaria, adding with a laugh, "It used to be 'Let's wrap it up by Labor Day,' but Labor Day feels really soon right now."