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In 2009, ABC had so much faith that Modern Family was comedy’s next hit that the network screened the entire pilot for Madison Avenue ad buyers at its upfront presentation. This year, however, ABC was barely mentioned during a Disney presentation that instead highlighted its sprawling portfolio and streaming prowess.
Gone are the days when broadcast was the priority at the New York dog-and-pony show, when networks would trot out the stars and fresh faces of the newly ordered 30-something comedies and dramas before unspooling trailers that they hoped would deliver a hit half as successful as the five-time Emmy winner.
Now, in the first in-person presentations since COVID-19 upended the industry, the stage was largely devoid of the class of 2022-23, and the vast majority of the new show trailers went unseen — if they were mentioned at all. What’s more, ABC, Fox and NBC still have series orders for next season in the works and casting to do for others that have already been greenlit.
The lack of star power onstage has as much to do with the current state of the pandemic as with its impact on the overall television landscape over the past few years. Gone are the lavish parties as agencies scale down on travel to the East Coast event in a response to the increasing disinterest in broadcast and in a bid to rein in spending. The networks, too, have dramatically scaled back on their pilot season spending as the days of producing nearly 100 comedies and dramas in the span of a few short months has practically become a model of the past.
Collectively, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW averaged 77.4 pilot orders a year over the past decade. This season, however, the five combined for a mere 35 pickups, with the tally representing a 10-year low. That trend continued as total series orders across the networks also notched a decade low (an average of 39.9 pickups vs. 17 this season).
And before you can declare broadcast totally dead (not that you’d be wrong to do so for myriad other reasons), there’s a catch: They’re not done ordering new shows yet. ABC, Fox and NBC still have multiple shows in consideration for a midseason series pickup as the development cycle continues its evolution to a year-round process.
If a year-round development cycle sounds familiar, it should: It’s the same approach that basic cable networks like FX and streamers including Netflix and their rivals have used since entering the scripted-originals business. You could call the move broadcast taking a page from streaming (and basic cable). But it’s also an admission that the free-spending days where networks would buy a combined 300 comedy and drama scripts every season weren’t financially or qualitatively the best approach.
“So many shows are trying to make square pegs fit in round holes that if they were just put together correctly or written correctly … it’d be better,” noted one agent frustrated with the lack of quality on broadcast for shows whose fates were predetermined from the start.
Under the financial anvil of the past two years, in which the pandemic accelerated the shift to streaming at most media companies, broadcast networks have seen their spending budgets slashed and those resources transferred to a wave of newly launched platforms. Many instead have opted to take a more nuanced approach to development. It’s an approach that was fueled by the pandemic — which wiped out Pilot Season 2020 — and forced execs to abandon the January-to-May frenzy in which writers and execs alike were under the gun to create the next Modern Family. Pilot season over the past decade has also continued to shrink from its frantic five-month period as formal orders have come in later each season, which only adds to the already fierce competition for actors, directors and production space.
ABC, for example, has only ordered four new shows for next season. One, David E. Kelley’s Avalon, was ordered straight to series in February and hasn’t even been cast yet. Another, Hilary Swank newspaper drama Alaska, landed a pilot order with the Oscar winner already cast back in September. The Disney-owned network still has five pilots — including two with the stars of This Is Us, Milo Ventimiglia and Chris Sullivan — in contention for midseason. And one of those, a national parks drama, has been in the works since 2021.
“We have a very healthy slate of off-cycle development,” ABC/Hulu boss Craig Erwich told THR this week. “The advantage of that is it really allows us to produce these shows when the talent and the material are ready. It gives us better quality. And since we’re focused on a very stable fall schedule, we have time at midseason to — like we did with Abbott Elementary — have a really custom, crafted campaign to bring these shows out as opportunities arise over the course of the season.”
NBC, meanwhile, technically added only two new shows this season (Lopez vs. Lopez and Quantum Leap) as its third — the Night Court update — was ordered to series in September 2021, when it was unclear if it would be for midseason. A recasting may have bumped the show to 2022-23 but it’s still an example of a network taking its time (and especially notable since the Melissa Rauch comedy hails from an outside studio). Looking ahead, NBC also has five drama pilots remaining in consideration for midseason — or, as the network noted in its schedule release, for the 2023-24 season.
“We’re very excited by the new additions to our lineup, which we believe will super-serve our linear audience. In addition, we will continue to develop and order pilots, all of which will help strengthen a robust year-round season,” NBCUniversal’s Susan Rovner said Monday. An hour after NBCUniversal’s upfront presentation, news leaked that NBC is eyeing a pilot order for a comedy from Mike O’Malley starring Jon Cryer. Is it for this season? Next? Who really knows anymore.
Night Court isn’t the only show on the fall schedule that is already long in the tooth. Country music drama Monarch has been in the works since 2019 as part of Fox’s script-to-series model that network topper Charlie Collier brought with him from his time running AMC (where he developed Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead). The series starring Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins was ordered at the same time as Night Court and pushed out of its post-NFC Championship game slot in January to the fall, with the network citing issues related to the pandemic at the time of the rescheduling. In fact, all of Fox’s new shows for 2022-23 are part of its commitment to the cable-like development model that saves money on pilots and affords more time to get the creative right. Fox, it’s worth pointing out, bucked tradition and was the only network this year to not unveil its fall schedule. Looking ahead, Fox — in its pre-taped presentation — mentioned three comedies from the upfront stage that haven’t even been ordered let alone cast. The same is true for missing-persons drama Alert, which was formally picked up the day of Fox’s presentation.
CBS, the most traditional of all the networks, has shown a willingness to be patient as True Lies — which counts original writer-director James Cameron among its exec producers — has been in the works since early last year. The series, which stars Steve Howey (Shameless) and Ginger Gonzaga (Kidding) in roles originally played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, was rolled from last season in order to give writer Matt Nix (Burn Notice) and producers more time with the script. And, sure, this may have had something to do with it.
The CW, amid sale talks, held the most traditional of all the presentations on Thursday and is working on a Zorro update that could be for midseason or 2023-24. The network ordered five backup scripts rather than handing out a formal pilot order to the drama from the creator of Riverdale back in February.
So while broadcast was all but forgotten this upfronts — yes, Fox, we’re aware that you have no alternative but to bang the drum about your “portfolio that was built upon” it — the increased focus on streaming and global reach makes you wonder if ad buyers will be the last, rather than the first, to know about the next Modern Family.
Series orders at all five broadcast networks by year
Source: THR research
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