Broadcast networks are breaking with a decades-old system—finally
By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/9/2006 8:00:00 PM
When ad executives at NBC's upfront presentation in New York last May began to fiddle with their Blackberries during previews for new dramas The Black Donnellys and Kidnapped, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly wasn't worried.
That's because he knew that many in the audience had already previewed the pilots at a pre-upfront showcase in Los Angeles a month earlier.
Reilly has touted Donnellys and Kidnapped as the product of NBC's new commitment to so-called year-round development. By developing the shows outside the traditional pilot season, he argues, the network was able to deliver finished pilots in March while other networks were rushing to wrap theirs in time for the upfronts.
Although Reilly has trumpeted NBC's efforts, he is the first to admit that his is not the only network—or the first—to embrace year-round development. But this year more than ever, broadcast networks are feeling the pressure to make off-cycle development a crucial piece of their overall strategy in an attempt to stay nimble and competitive in a changing TV world.
Competition from cable throughout the year is pushing networks to create programming for a greater number of launch windows. With viewers—and advertisers—abandoning TV for the Web and other platforms, networks are awakening to the reality that they must shrug off old habits in order to survive.
“The television community has a collective consciousness,” says Jamie Erlicht, co-president of programming and production for Sony Pictures Television. “Like a farming community, it's 'This is the time we do this, and this is the time we do that.'”
The system was established in the 1970s, when there were only three networks and no competition from cable. Just as the upfront advertising market in the spring is pegged to the traditional start of the season in the fall, the development cycle backs up from those May upfront presentations.
A mad scramble
The cycle begins each July and August, when networks field pitches for dramatic series and generally decide by the end of September which ones to purchase. Pitches for comedies, which have shorter production schedules than dramas, tend to come in during September and are bought as late as November.
Once the ideas are sold, the scriptwriting phase lasts through the end of the year; the networks then spend January into early February deciding which to turn into pilots. It's at this point that the process begins to resemble a battle royal, as networks jostle to hire from the same pool of directors, casting directors, and actors and to book the same facilities to shoot upwards of 150 pilots. This mad scramble—and the actual shooting of the pilots—takes place between late February and mid April.
Late April is a post-production marathon, with network bosses reviewing rough cuts at all hours. The networks then rush the pilots into the field for testing, a five-day process that can be squeezed into three in a pinch. As they head to New York for the upfronts in May, sleep-deprived executives set the fall schedule.
“The whole thing is fairly insane,” says NBC's Reilly. “It's shocking that this business has been basically manufacturing pilots on the exact same timetable and process for at least 25 years. It's a miracle that anything good comes out.”
Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, which produces Kidnapped, contrasts the process with the film industry's. “If everyone developed and shot all their movies at exactly the same time,” he asks, “how many great ones could get made?”
But while many agree that the system chokes off creativity, it endures largely by virtue of its ingrained familiarity and through sheer inertia. Reilly wishes talent agents would do more to motivate creative types in the off-season. “I honestly believe the agencies aren't diligent enough about this,” he says. “They aren't engaging their clients enough to get them in here early.”
One Hollywood-based TV agent shares Reilly's frustrations but wonders if the inertia is too great: “The most challenging aspect is getting people to break out of patterns they become so accustomed to year after year.”
For NBC, however, breaking the pattern may be just the thing to reverse its ratings decline. The network greenlighted the pilot for Kidnapped in September and decided to pick up the series within 24 hours of seeing it the following March. That enabled NBC to showcase the pilot at its pre-upfront presentation to advertisers that month, generating some early buzz and giving the network some momentum going into the upfronts.
Flexibility in production
Having clips for a pre-upfront presentation is far from the only advantage to developing off-cycle. Not having to battle over actors, writers, directors and facilities gives a show an opportunity it may not have in the spring. And with television increasingly looking to film and theater for actors and directors, flexibility in production scheduling can also attract new talent.
“These people aren't necessarily on the same schedule we are,” says Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox. “So we are not going to be so arrogant as to say, 'You can only come play with us when we are available.'”
Fox has been developing off-cycle for years, in part to schedule around Major League Baseball in the fall. It ordered The O.C. in late March 2003 and rushed it to air that August.
The network is again departing from the norm with Drive, a race-car pilot that began on the traditional cycle but stalled when first-choice director Greg Yaitanes wasn't available initially. “We just kind of looked at each other and said, 'What are we doing?'” Erwich says, explaining the network's decision to wait for Yaitanes.
By the same token, writers and producers appreciate not having to wait months for pitch season.
“If you come up with an idea and have to wait nine months to pitch it, it tends to go stale,” says Kidnapped creator Jason Smilovic.
Although Reilly is quick to acknowledge that his network's year-round approach is not revolutionary, both NBC and Fox have established themselves as go-to networks for early pitches. But executives at rival networks tout their own efforts in off-cycle development.
Wendi Trilling, executive VP, comedy series development, CBS Entertainment, says that her network has put more than 10 projects into development since January, including a recently announced comedy from Ben Stiller. “They just seem to be more panicked than we are,” she says of NBC. “It just seems like they are putting the word out because they need more new shows and need to get the word out to get more stuff coming in.”
ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson also dismisses the notion that NBC and Fox are ahead of the curve. “The idea that Fox invented this new idea and NBC is doing something incredibly innovative is much more PR,” he says. “Everyone is doing it. We are all getting slowly and surely away from the pilot-season model.”
ABC is actively developing off-cycle projects, including a pilot about TV news correspondents from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes that begins shooting in August. A David Kelley project will move forward as soon as the script is ready, McPherson says.
“We are putting our money where our mouth is”
The off-cycle option allowed The CW President Dawn Ostroff to hold off on developing comedy Aliens in America while she readied the new network for its fall launch. And with a more fluid development process, she notes, networks can serve up fresh product at the increasing number of points in the season when shows are launched.
“There are two places in midseason—January and March—and two places in the summer,” she says. “Launches are everywhere now.”
Indeed, Grey's Anatomy, the Sunday-night drama that sent shock waves through the fall grid when ABC announced its move to Thursdays, originally debuted almost as an afterthought late in spring 2005.
But while there are many advantages to putting a show into production on an early track, there is actually no clear financial incentive. A typical drama pilot costs between $5 million and $7 million while a comedy runs close to $2 million, regardless of when a pilot is shot.
“There is no true business benefit to doing it early,” says Sony's Erlicht. “It just betters the odds of making a good show by having better talent.”
Reilly says that NBC's year-round development incurred no incremental costs but required “moving some money around” and some internal shuffles at the network to dedicate certain executives to off-cycle development. “In that way,” he says, “we are putting our money where our mouth is.”
On the other hand, he adds, developing off-cycle “can financially expose you”—particularly if the show tanks early on.
When a network shuts down a show developed on the traditional track, it usually is only a few episodes ahead in the schedule. Production costs that would have gone into filming the rest of the episodes can then be recovered to offset the loss. However, if a network has committed early and, therefore, has more episodes shot and in the can, there is no way to recoup the money. With dramas often costing $2 million to $3 million per episode, the losses can be significant.
Off-cycle development isn't a panacea for producers either. While most are thrilled to get an early commitment, they can be left hanging if a project is greenlighted without a planned launch. Even if a network buys the show, it may be shelved and forgotten or fall victim to poor scheduling.
Imagine Television President David Nevins, a former network executive with NBC and Fox, has been involved in multiple off-cycle launches as a producer. Imagine's Treasure Hunters was ready to go early in the spring, but NBC held it until mid June, when the network could give it stronger promotional backing.
On the flip side, Imagine's crime drama The Inside, which was developed in early 2004 and set for January 2005 launch, was held by Fox until that June and never found an audience. Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori later told reporters he wished he'd launched it earlier, behind the American Idol and 24 season finales.
“The Inside was made without much of a plan,” Nevins says. “A project can grow stale, and a network can grow tired of a show if it sits on their shelf for too long. The worst-case scenario is being off-cycle and not a favorite of the network. That's when you are really in trouble.”
The end of entrenchment
Actually, the worst-case scenario is what happened to Nevins' show Misconceptions earlier this year. Slated for The WB's midseason, the show never saw air after the network's January announcement that it would shutter and bequeath its programming to The CW.
“When the network folds, that doesn't work in your favor either,” Nevins quips.
Still, Hollywood appears to be warming to the notion that networks are open for business year-round.
“I went into my packaging meeting this morning and told them there is an appetite to hear pitches now,” says an agent who packages show pitches. “Now more than ever, we can tell clients NBC is open or Fox is open and they are serious about buying stuff and buying it now.”
ABC's McPherson is sanguine about the prospects, but he doesn't expect the traditional cycle to be scrapped anytime soon. “The idea of year-round development is fantastic,” he says. “The problem with it is, we are still on a cycle and everyone is entrenched in that.”
But that entrenchment is showing signs of giving way. Indeed, many advertisers are openly questioning the wisdom of concentrating their ad buys in the upfront market. While talk of the upfronts' passing into obsolescence is premature, it is clear that the industry is no longer anchored by many of the customs and practices that have formed its foundation for decades.
“We are in a place where, the next five years, there is going to be lots of changes in the way networks are scheduled, content is rolled out and sold, windowed, distributed, all of the above,” says NBC's Reilly. “In that environment, I do not want to be bound to the traditional scheduling and development process.”
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