After A Lackluster Year, Networks Aim to Make More Noise This Pilot Season
Michael J Fox
The broadcast networks are desperate for your attention. They know that you're overwhelmed with their programming and distracted by cable, the Internet and now even streaming services. Plus, they didn't produce a new major hit this season, and their ratings are suffering for it.
That's why this year's crop of nearly 100 series pilots at the five networks (48 comedy and 50 drama from the five networks) is all about being big: big stars, big producers, big concepts.
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"Executives are looking to find shows that can break out from the clutter," says Terence Carter, Fox's senior vice president of drama development. "There's a far greater number of shows that launch all at the same time. It's really evident with how many pilots are going right now. It's mind-numbing."
Says Sony Pictures TV co-president Zack Van Amburg: "I know marketing budgets are thin, and inevitably these networks are able to market only a couple of things when they launch. Either a show has to be a self-starter, or if you're going to spend $10 million on a marketing campaign — yikes! — it better work."
A stellar script is no longer enough for a network to order a pilot. Projects with talent already attached — or adaptations of existing material — rise to the top. A large percentage of this year's pilots are based on intellectual property such as books, movies, foreign series (Israeli, British, Argentine and Australian shows are all in the works), old TV shows, comics — and in the case of ABC's Big Thunder, a Disneyland ride.
"We certainly saw an emerging trend that the bigger packages with fewer variables left to them — it's based on a format, it's based around an actor, it's created by a wonderful showrunner, a director is already attached — meant the less anxiety we found at the networks," Van Amburg says. "It proved to be a good strategy."
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That's how Sony wound up securing a whopping 22-episode order from NBC for its Michael J. Fox comedy, which had sparked a major bidding war between the networks. Sony also made some noise with its Beverly Hills Cop reboot from executive producer Eddie Murphy (who will also cameo as Axel Foley). The addition of superstar showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield) helped give the new version even more buzz. CBS won the rights to that project after a competitive bidding battle.
"We were fortunate that a lot of broadcast networks wanted it," Van Amburg says. "It really is a continuation of where the story would have gone. If you were a fan of the movie you're going to be excited to see your old friend Axel Foley on the screen again."
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Producers are also taking a cue from the few things that worked this season: The success of CBS' Sherlock Holmes update Elementary and The CW's Arrow (based on the DC Comics character) have launched another round of pilots featuring familiar characters and franchises. Fox's Kevin Bacon thriller The Following has inspired more A-list stars to return to TV. NBC's Revolution has made it OK to keep trying more sci-fi. But the two shows that continue to influence network execs the most are two of the top ratings-grabbers currently on TV: AMC's The Walking Dead and ABC's Modern Family.
Bacon famously asked for a shorter, 15-episode run of The Following so that he could still have time for features; now, according to Carter, Greg Kinnear will get a similar deal for Fox's Rake. If picked up, Rake — about a self-destructive criminal defense lawyer — would likely run for 17 episodes, instead of the usual 22.
Other stars top-lining pilots include Robin Williams (in his first regular series role since Mork & Mindy) as an ad exec on the CBS sitcom Crazy Ones and Sean Hayes in an NBC comedy pilot. "You need a great script and a great idea," says Suzanna Makkos, Fox's senior vice president of comedy development, "but a piece of great casting does not hurt. You know you need that big punch coming out of the gate."
Modern Family has inspired more unconventional family shows like Chuck Lorre's CBS comedy Mom, which stars Anna Faris as a newly sober single mother in Napa. NBC's Girlfriend in a Coma stars Christina Ricci as a 34-year-old who wakes up from an accident and discovers she has a teenage daughter. NBC's The Donor Party centers on a man who learns he has fathered several children via sperm donation. Parker Posey is the mother of a teenager (and The Closer's J.K. Simmons plays her blind ex-husband) in an NBC sitcom based on creator D.J. Nash's life.
John Leguizamo's untitled ABC comedy is about his experiences as a guy struggling to maintain his Bronx roots while living with his wife and kids on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Comedian Jim Gaffigan's CBS sitcom is influenced by his real life as the harried father of five kids. "We all have our own version of family," says Fox's Marcus Wiley, senior vice president of comedy development. "We're looking for those relatable threads, which are easier to find in family comedies."
Meanwhile, on the drama side, The Walking Dead has opened the door to more projects with a mythology, comics or sci-fi origin. ABC has Joss Whedon's take on Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D.; NBC's Wonderland is a modern re-telling of Lewis Carroll's Alice; ABC's soap Gothica weaves in the stories of Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde and more; and Fox has an update on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as well as a drama from J.J. Abrams about android cops. On ABC's The Returned, dead loved ones are suddenly alive again.
"The Walking Dead is the biggest show around and definitely a genre piece," says Carter. "Shows like that embolden us at the broadcast networks to take some chances."
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