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Hell Day 2021, as it turns out, was not so hellish after all.
The Friday before the annual upfront presentations tends to be the busiest decision day of the season for the five broadcast networks but this year, ahead of next week’s virtual presentations, things were much more civilized as only a handful of shows were renewed (welcome back again, Stabler) and even fewer new ones (all hail ABC’s Queens) were picked up to series.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, all five networks are plotting a return to business as usual following a year unlike any other — and one that included regime changes ABC and NBC. This season, the networks had a mix of pilots that were picked up before the pandemic that were competing for slots on the schedule with others that were greenlit this year.
In perhaps the first signal that the networks are serious about shifting to a year-round development model, several of next season’s 25 new comedies and dramas were ordered well before crunch time in May. While the networks have spoken for years about the need for a change from the frantic three-month period that sees everyone compete for actors and directors at the same time, the pandemic may have been the push needed to make a lasting change.
To that point, Fox ordered the first new series of the 2021-22 season in October with Paul Feig’s This Country, which filmed only a day before the pandemic upended pilot season 2020. Lee Daniels drama Our Kind of People, developed as far back as 2019 as part of Fox’s script-to-series model, got the series call in March and is now casting from a larger talent pool. NBC got a jump on the season in January after hitting the gas on Grand Crew, LaBrea and American Auto. Even The CW, which won’t make the bulk of its pickups until closer to its May 25 scheduling call, picked up a new take on USA Network’s The 4400 in February. And CBS picked up a total of six new shows — four of them (new takes on CSI, FBI and NCIS as well as a 2020 holdover Ghosts) coming in March and early April. ABC, it’s worth noting, attempted to get a head start in November but a new regime ultimately passed on the straight-to-series Kelsey Grammer-Alec Baldwin comedy after seeing the pilot of the multicam from Modern Family co-creator Chris Lloyd. (Don’t worry, it’s being shopped.)
And while few, if any, additional comedies and dramas are expected to get the series call this month, the Big Four still have multiple pilots in consideration for midseason 2021-22 and beyond. Of ABC’s five dramas still in consideration, three were picked up after Craig Erwich replaced Karey Burke at the helm of the network. NBC has nine pilots still in the mix, with five of them — including a Night Court update — picked up by its new regime, Frances Berwick and Susan Rovner. CBS pushed its James Cameron-produced reboot of True Lies off-cycle a month after picking it up to pilot, perhaps holding out hope that it could fill the midseason spot that, until Friday, was considered a lock to go to Patrick Dempsey-led political drama Ways and Means (also a 2020 holdover that heated up after the actor returned to Grey’s and extended his option). And consider Fox big on planning as on Friday the network ordered David Shore-Howard Gordon drama Accused for the 2022-23 season.
So, can we all finally agree — Rovner did Friday — that Kevin Reilly was right when he said, “RIP, pilot season” way back in 2014?
“There’s always been a demand from moving away from a non-year-round pilot season and this feels like it more than ever,” one lit agent says. “We won’t know until a year from now. There may be some pilots for upfronts consideration and some developed off-cycle. And eventually that will be the way it goes.”
Much of these moves were brought on out of necessity as a result of the pandemic, with only one pilot — CBS’ Chuck Lorre bubble comedy B Positive — able to complete production. With filming on pause for months, the suddenly budget-conscious networks weeded out the strong from the weak and paid to extend cast options and order extra scripts on buzzy pilots. The extra time didn’t completely work out for everyone after ABC prematurely canceled its low-rated Rebel, which was entirely filmed during the pandemic, bowed a month ago and hailed from its most important producer (Grey’s Anatomy’s Krista Vernoff). Rebel, perhaps the season’s most surprising cancellation, was one of 60 pilots the networks ordered pre-pandemic. A year later, some of those are among the 45 that could live on well beyond pilot season 2021. And if that still sounds absurd, consider the whopping 98 pilots the networks collectively produced in 2013.
“COVID forced us to relook at our pilot season,” Rovner told reporters Friday during her first press call atop NBC. “It’s something we’ve always talked about but COVID made us truly look at it.”
As vaccines continue to get into arms and networks and studios alike adjust to the added costs and time it takes to film with pandemic-related safety protocols, many industry sources are waiting to see just how serious the broadcast nets are about changes to their development process. After the pandemic forced media conglomerates to shift their staffing and financial resources to their in-house streamers, it’s unclear if the belt-tightening at the broadcasters will have an impact on the overall volume of scripts and eventual pilots the networks pay to make. “The days of 150 each are over,” one agent-turned-manager notes of the volume of scripts each broadcaster traditionally bought every development season.
Looking ahead, the networks are inching closer to their pre-pandemic levels of new scripted originals with total volume currently at 25. That’s up from 2020’s pandemic-fueled low (19) and not far off from the 36 new shows they collectively ordered in 2019. Fox, which has a Thursday Night Football void to fill, is driving the uptick so far (up from two to seven). And we’re not done yet. The CW — which is expanding to Saturdays next season — has three pilots and a few planted spinoffs in consideration. And NBC has plenty of pilot decisions (and a few bubble shows) left to go.
As for when the next pilot decisions and pickups will come? Rovner summed it up best Friday morning: “If we’re making the best shows, everyone is going to win.”
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