A rough season of plunging ratings and high-profile failures, it's time to try harder. Even with reality bringing in huge audiences—see American Idol, Survivor: All Stars or The Apprentice—networks are gambling on finding that scripted hit that will mean big money for themselves, studios and syndicators.
Still, the networks' development slates feel familiar so far. There are all sorts of different takes on the tried-and-true cop show, the hospital drama and the family-in-flux soap opera. As for comedies—networks are just starting to order them—producers continue to build shows around family types, hoping some ensemble will catch fire.
NBC, which will have the highest-profile development season with the departure of Friends and Frasier, is going after young men next fall. "We're doing comedies that have a male sensibility to them," says President of Prime Time Development Kevin Reilly. "We're cleansing the palate from the template of Friends knockoffs that we've done. We have a wide range of sensibilities from dark comedy to improv to really off-beat to smart relationship shows."
The most visible projects at NBC are Friends spinoff Joey; a remake of BBC's Golden Globe winner, The Office; and animated sitcom Father of the Pride, about white lions in a Las Vegas show.
"I think we are going to have some really good surprises," Reilly says. "Some scripts have come in that are like little diamonds in the rough."
NBC's drama needs are less, and the network plans to pick up two to four series for fall, with probably two on hold to launch later in the year.
CBS is going full steam ahead on development even though the network has fewer holes to fill. It picked up 10 drama pilots, including definite-go CSI: New York. Except for CSI, CBS's drama development is looking less crime-oriented than in years past, with shows like Cooking Lessons, based on the life of New York Times
food critic Amanda Hesser, and Sudbury, about a family of witches.
CBS has only just begun on comedy, but it has ordered a show based on the life of Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser. It's also looking to get younger, giving pop star Hilary Duff a shot on 16 to Life.
ABC ordered the most dramas this year of any network, 13. Two of those are from Alias creator and executive producer J.J. Abrams: Lost, about survivors living on a desert island, and The Catch, about two bounty hunters.
ABC also is placing bets on David E. Kelley, Boomtown's Graham Yost and Everwood's Greg Berlanti.
The WB says its comedies are going in a different direction next fall. "When we look at every network, there is an abundance of family shows. We feel like it's going to take something different to really break out," says Co-Executive Vice President of Comedy Mike Clements.
The network has ordered six episodes of a show starring blue-collar comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
Uber-reality producer Mark Burnett, starting his scripted TV career, has sold two pilots to The WB. Comedy Commando Nanny is based on Burnett's life, and drama Global Frequency is about a top-secret defense intelligence organization.
The WB is picking up a total of seven drama pilots, including a remake of vampire soap Dark Shadows from ER's John Wells and a show about Jack and Bobby Kennedy's teen years from Berlanti.
Fox's development slate includes crime, hospital and legal shows, but that's to be expected, says Executive Vice President of Programming Craig Erwich. "We've always tried to take franchise shows and twist them. The trick is to execute them in a way that feels fresh."
Fox has Johnny Zero in the works from Wells, about a tough ex-con who becomes a private investigator. And the net hopes to duplicate The O.C.'s success with Oahu, One Big Happy or Point Pleasant.
UPN has picked up seven drama pilots and this year is again in business with big names. The network ordered Kevin Hill, from Mel Gibson's production company, about a playboy attorney who gives it all up to rear his niece. Also on UPN's shopping list is action producer Joel Silver's Veronica Mars, about a father-daughter team of private investigators.