Magazine article Variety

Jump Ball

Magazine article Variety

Jump Ball

Article excerpt

The broadcast nets have handed out a range of exotic development pacts this pilot season, keeping business-affairs departments working overtime on new deal points and templates. There are more straight-to-series orders, more plans to shoot pilots in the summer and fall, more writers working away on multiple scripts and bibles - all giving execs plenty to consider before granting a formal greenlight. More projects are getting pushed back for further work when initial efforts don't impress.

Make no mistake: Networks and studios are breaking out the shovels to make foundational changes, with the goal of cementing new protocols for next year and beyond. Fox and NBC have led the charge, while ABC and CBS have taken their own steps to varying degrees. Industry vets say it is a necessary response to the headwinds buffeting the broadcast biz: the dramatic shifts in the way people watch TV and the qualitative rise of cable programming.

"We are in a state of transition," says Joe Earley, chief operating officer of Fox Broadcasting Co., "and there are growing pains."

But as much as things are changing, much remains the same. Pilot season, which starts in earnest right after the new year, is a galvanizing point on the calendar for network execs as they brace for the upfront programming presentations in mid-May. With more than 80 comedy and drama projects to cast, shoot, edit and polish inside of 90-odd days, the best way to describe the atmosphere at nets and studios at this time of year is to use a handy sports term: March Madness.

Just like the annual college basketball tournament, pilot season starts out with dozens of teams competing for glory, but only a handful make it to the finals. And fewer still go all the way to a championship - a healthy run in primetime and syndication.

Pilot orders for the 2014-15 season are down about 15% from last year's cycle, to 87 this year from 102 in 2013. Most of that drop, however, has been offset by the spike in the number of straight-to-series orders and the mania for limited series. The networks are collectively developing just as much content as ever - if not more - they're just doing some of it on a different timetable than in years past.

The Big Four each spends $80 million-$100 million on programming R&D each year. Those numbers aren't going to decrease any time soon, industry execs say, especially with the reduction in primetime reruns and the move to program originals over the summer.

But with the core network economic model - advertising sales - facing its own challenges, it's no surprise that nets would look for more efficient ways to deploy development resources. That has raised concerns among some that the traditional compensation formulas codified in the master contracts of the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA won't keep pace with the new ways of doing business.

For the most part, however, writers and other créatives are embracing the willingness to be more experimental.

"I think it's remarkable how quickly things have been changing," says Rick Rosen, WME's TV chieftain. "People are consuming content much differently, and that requires the networks to think about how they're getting audiences to these shows. When you see the leading broadcaster in the business, CBS, doing things outside of their normal wheelhouse, you know that all rules are up for grabs right now."

The broadcast nets have been adjusting for years to the sobering reality that they are no longer the automatic first stop for top talent, given the creative freedom, shorter series orders and longer production lead time offered by most basic and pay outlets (which now include Netflix and Amazon). But in the past two years, the talent drought has noticeably worsened.

With so many showrunners and seasoned writers, partie- ularly drama specialists, already working on original series, the networks have felt a slowdown of product as the ranks of experienced scribes who have the time (and the contractual ability) to develop new projects have become stretched thin. …

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