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Hit and Run

Networks try new ways to stretch their development dollars 4/04/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Sci Fi Channel chief Bonnie Hammer thought Anonymous Rex
was a fantastic book—and would make great TV. She first pored over Eric Garcia's sci-fi tale of dinosaurs disguised as humans and living among them when she took the network's helm in 1999. But after several writers and endless scripts, nothing clicked. Finally, five years later, a series pilot for Anonymous Rex
is going into production. "You can't rush in," says Hammer. "You have to make sure you have the right sensibility and the stamina to sustain the development."

And the stakes are high.

Cable networks like Sci Fi get only a few shots a year at scripted series. Their development process is like precision surgery. Projects are painstakingly selected and crafted. There can't be any waste. Broadcast networks might lavish $6 million on a one-hour drama pilot; half that is generous by cable standards. And while broadcasters develop 20 or 30 series pilots per season, most cable networks stick to under 10 a year, including non-scripted shows.

Still, Sci Fi isn't taking any chances with Anonymous Rex. The pilot will be 90 minutes, rather than an hour, so it can premiere as an original movie. In fact, Sci Fi auditions all its potential series this way. If a project hits as a movie or miniseries, it has a shot at becoming a recurring show.

Every cable network has tricks to stretch its development efforts and dollars. Most keep episode orders shorter—13—versus the 22 or 26 for broadcast. That saves money and reduces risk. For example, FX, home to hit plastic-surgery drama Nip/Tuck, plays it lean and mean. For a one-hour series, says President of Entertainment John Landgraf, "the best pilot is a one-hour episode." However, to control costs, the channel makes only a few pilots a year.

Not everyone subscribes to the pilot-as-episode philosophy. At USA Network, Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president, original programming, is flexible on a pilot's running time. Some run an hour; others, 90 minutes or two hours. If the pilot doesn't get picked up for a series, it can air as a movie and sell overseas. That happened with the pilot for Red Skies, a martial-arts drama.

TNT, which has been out of the original-series game for a few years, is plunging back into development. "We're looking for one show," says Senior Vice President of Programming Michael Wright. In broadcast development, he says, networks are often looking to plug schedule holes or replace aging hits. Originals are optional at TNT, and programmers can be picky.

On TNT—and many cable networks—acquired series, sports, and movies carry the load. "You can buy a handful of scripts and really focus on them," Wright says. "You're not planning and building from a place of weakness but from a place of strength." He plans to develop 10 or 12 TNT scripts, then narrow down to three pilots. He'll greenlight one and aim for a June 2005 premiere.

Across cable, one widespread tactic is to head north of the border. Many shows, from Lifetime's original dramas to ESPN's one-season wonder Playmakers, are produced in Canada. "It's not about trying to save money but being able to put more money on the screen," explains ESPN Senior Vice President of Original Programming Ron Semaio. Labor is cheaper, and there are tax breaks.

Shooting in Canada wasn't ESPN's only trick with Playmakers. There was no pilot. Once the first script was approved, the network sailed into production on 13 episodes. Eliminating a break in production between the first episode and the rest helped keep costs down.

Although skipping the pilot is unusual, even on cable, a full pilot isn't always necessary for a non-scripted or reality show. On The Real World, networks screen the candidates and hope for the best.

Similarly, Bravo's Project Greenlight doesn't have a pilot. For its third season, the filmmaker reality show (Bravo picked it up after HBO passed) is searching for horror films. The selection process is the show. "You have to jump straight in or not do it at all," says Bravo Senior Vice President of Programming Frances Berwick.

Discovery Networks chief Billy Campbell wants his programmers to create more presentation tapes instead of full test shows. "All I need is eight minutes and a test script," he says, "and I know if people will respond." That's how an upcoming wildlife adventure show with snake expert Austin Stevens was conceived. Pilot or not, Campbell predicts it will be a hit.

Such strategies are working.

Talent is flowing more freely to cable. Monk
and The Shield
won Emmys. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
hit the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

"The stigma of 'Geez, cable' as a second-tier place is off," says Kevin Beggs, president of Lions Gate Television, which produces cable dramas like Lifetime's 1-800-Missing
and USA's Dead Zone. "People are more receptive."

Of course, one source for cable projects is the broadcast networks, whose cast-off efforts can find their way to cable. That's how Monk
arrived at USA after ABC passed on it. USA, which just launched drama Touching Evil, is crafting limited series 4,400, about missing people presumed dead who return home, after a broadcast network released it.

The key to development for any cable network, says Wachtel, is flexibility: "We have to be more open in the way we develop, the genres we do, and the way we schedule. It's very early in this chapter for basic cable."

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