Will the strike's mark be permanent?


Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment president
Kevin Reilly, Fox Entertainment president
Stephen McPherson, ABC Entertainment president
Dawn Ostroff, CW Entertainment president

More pilot season coverage

The 2008-09 development season will go down in TV history with an asterisk.

It's too early to tell if the footnote will simply say "the season was affected by the WGA strike" or "2008-09 was the season that broke the traditional development cycle," but it certainly jolted some decades-old TV rituals.

It started off with a buying frenzy in the summer, as networks frantically stocked up in the event of a strike. Then came the three-month standstill of the strike, during which all networks except NBC let go of a quarter to a third of their development slates. That was followed by more frenzy after the end of the 100-day work stoppage, with studios racing to get pilots ready in half of the normal time.

"It's a very unusual year," Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth said. "We are all trying to make up for 3 1/2 months of lost time in what essentially is 3 1/2 weeks."

What makes it even more unusual is that every network is doing things differently.

Fox has stayed closest to tradition with post-strike pilot orders. CBS and the CW opted to do mostly presentations on the drama side, while ABC will not produce its newly picked-up pilots until after the May upfront. And then there is NBC, which held its upfront April 2, where it unveiled a 65-week schedule.

Overall, all networks' pilot slates are slimmer, and NBC, which has been touting a direct-to-series-approach, hasn't ordered a single pilot since the end of the strike.

"It's as frustrating as I thought it would be," ABC Studios president Mark Pedowitz said. "The needs of each network are less, so projects that might have been picked up to pilot in a normal development season didn't make it this year."

Some of the major players, such as Warner Bros. TV and 20th Century Fox TV, are making half the number of pilots they made in recent years.

"We would like to do a few more pilots, but we certainly would be better off if we do fewer pilots than we did in the past," 20th TV chairman Gary Newman said. "We can get a great deal more support to our creators, and we're hopeful that the increased focus will lead to more pilots going to series. It feels a little like the cable model."

More than ever this season, the broadcast networks have been looking at their cable counterparts -- which spend more time in development, order few pilots and have a high pilots-to-series-to-hit ratio -- for cues about how to make their development more efficient.

Having fewer pilots this year also has helped finding talent, Newman said.

"The acting and the directing pool is a little bit less picked-over," he said. "This year, it felt like a saner process rather than the craziness of so many projects chasing the same people."

Even with a larger acting pool, the invasion of foreign thesps continues with a slew, including Simon Baker, Rufus Sewell, Josh Lawson and Toby Stephens landing leads in pilots.

The networks made distinctly different choices in their pickups before and after the strike. Before the strike, it was mostly big-idea, high-concept shows like the medieval drama "The Kingdom," which sparked a heated bidding war. (CBS ultimately passed on the project, which now is being redeveloped by Sony for the international market). After the strike, the networks have stayed largely close to brand, with CBS ordering a lot of procedurals, Fox going for genre shows and CW betting on female-oriented teen soaps.

In terms of genres, sci-fi is big this year with Fox's "Fringe," "Dollhouse," "Virtuality" and "Boldly Going Nowhere"; CBS' "Eleventh Hour"; and ABC's "Section 8."

Foreign formats also are red-hot, with more than a dozen pilots based on international series from such territories as the U.K., Australia, Israel and New Zealand. While the projects were mostly set up at the networks before the strike, CBS Paramount Network TV president David Stapf believes the work stoppage contributed to the formats' strong showing in the pilot-pickup stage.

"It forced all of us in development to look deeper and harder in other areas," he said.

In the past few years, the networks went hard and heavy after big-name feature directors for pilots. Last year, the list of drama pilot directors read like who's who of filmmaking, including Barry Sonnenfeld, Bryan Singer, Lasse Hallstrom, Doug Liman, Stephen Frears, Guy Ritchie, Spike Lee, McG, Gabriele Muccino and Kevin Smith.

This time, with a few exceptions, it's proven TV veterans who are directing the top one-hour pilots, including David Nutter, David Semel, Thomas Schlamme, Danny Cannon, Alex Graves, Charles McDougall, Richard Shepard and Marc Buckland.

Having an abbreviated pilot season with little time to go after big feature names was a factor but not the only one.

"You really wanted to go with somebody you knew had played in that form before," Stapf said.

A main point in NBC's decision to often forgo pilots and go straight to series was that in many cases, a pilot shot on a lavish budget by a feature director is not reflective of what the series -- shot on a standard budget by TV directors -- would be.

Still, the networks are not shying away from big-budget pilots this year, though most were picked up before the strike.

At $10 million, the two-hour "Fringe" is in the range of J.J. Abrams' "Lost," considered to be the most expensive network pilot.

Studios said they are spending similar amounts of money as previous years but spending it more wisely this year with fewer pilots.

For instance, to offset high-end fare like the sci-fi drama "Dollhouse," 20th TV it is doing a couple of more relationship-driven projects that are on a lower budget.

And several studios, including 20th TV and ABC Studios, looked outside of California in states with big incentives to shoot pilots.

A number of big-budget dramas, such as "Dollhouse," "Eleventh Hour" and NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Kings," will benefit economically from the fact that they are going straight to series.

The Universal Media Studios-produced "Enemy" and "Kings" will have six to eight scripts written before filming begins.

"Direct-to-series is more efficient because you're not paying pilot fees and you can amortize cost over the episodes more efficiently," UMS president Katherine Pope said. "You have the scripts written, so you can have an incredible location that you can use multiple times instead of making it a one-time cost. It's about being smart with how you spend your money."

CBS and the CW's strategy to replace most of their one-hour pilots with shorter presentations, whose cost is on average 60% of that of a full-blown pilot, also is getting approval from the studios.

"I think it's smart," said Stapf, whose studio is a main supplier to both networks. "You don't always need to spend what we spend on pilots to find out if you have a good template for a series."

Because of the networks' new strategy toward year-round development, the studios will get to jump right back into pilot production after the May upfronts. With a potential actors strike looming, it will be a feeling of deja vu in more ways than one.

"The question of will or won't there be a SAG strike is adding a different level of uneasiness," Pedowitz said.