Pilot Season 2021: What To Expect Amid the Pandemic & Status Of All Leftover 2020 Broadcast Pilots

Nellie Andreeva
·7 min read

It is January, which marks the start of the broadcast pilot season when networks begin to pick up their crop of pilots for next season. Not this year. In January 2021, most broadcast networks are still getting ready to film some of their 2020 pilots and the country is going through a deadly Covid-19 surge, with California as the epicenter.

The coronavirus pandemic blew up the 2020 pilot season by grounding almost all pilots just as they were heading into production. The shakeup led to nets embracing straight-to-series orders in a bigger way, relying on extra backup scripts to make their decisions. Fox, which already had started a transition to year-round development, over the summer adjusted its approach to development and will be commissioning a mix of traditional pilots, lower-cost presentations, writers rooms as well as outright straight-to-series orders going forward. ABC also has stepped up its plans to move development to off-cycle (aka “second cycle”).

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While the broadcast networks are moving toward the streaming development model, they have not officially written off the traditional pilot model yet and bought a sizable number of pitches this season, considering the backed-up development from last season. And, while the situation is very fluid, some pilots are expected to be greenlit this cycle. The orders will likely be late as scripts are coming in late, and I hear there is no urgency on the part of the networks to rush them. (I hear some nets have received just a little over half of their scripts.) Networks’ pilot pickup decisions will be difficult to make this year with most of the new 2020-21 broadcast series yet to premiere and a number of 2020 pilots yet to shoot, delayed by the current surge of coronavirus infections. In the case of Fox and the CW, their entire 2020-21 lineups are only now rolling out, so there is little information right now on how new and returning series would perform.

Here is how I hear things stand at each of the networks with regards to existing and new pilots.

ABC gave three of its 2020 pilots straight-to-series orders, dramas Big Sky, which had a solid late fall debut, and Rebel, and comedy Call Your Mother. It also picked up to series comedy Home Economics off of a presentation.

Of the remaining pilots, high-profile drama Harlem’s Kitchen starring Delroy Lindo, is not going forward; it was slated to film this month, I have learned. ABC Signature tried to shop the project to streamers but could not find it a new home, I hear.

Harlem’s Kitchen was one of five 2020 pilots ABC committed to filming in June, along with Rebel, which ultimately went directly to series, and comedies Bossy, Home Economics, and Work Wife. I hear there is no decision yet on Work Wife, which has been shot, while Bossy is yet to be filmed because of the current Covid surge.

For the 2020 pilot season, ABC has “second cycle” drama pilot Triage, which was recently completed. I hear it will likely be joined by Kevin Costner’s National Park Service drama (aka ISB), originally bought last season as put pilot, and Sam Esmail’s Acts Of Crime, which ABC gave a pilot production commitment to as part of the current development cycle. Both have been heating up for pilot orders.

Triage, National Park Service and Acts Of Crime are all procedurals, so I hear additional drama pilot orders, as few as two, may be serialized/big idea projects. On the comedy side, ABC already gave a straight-to-series order to a project pitched this past summer, a multi-cam comedy starring Kelsey Grammer and Alec Baldwin. The network is still expected to pick up a few half-hour pilots, with the multi-cam starring Sarah Hyland among early contenders.

In addition to the slow pilot script turn-in and focus on the outstanding 2020 pilots, ABC’s 2021 pilot orders also may be delayed by the recent top executive change, with Hulu’s Craig Erwich adding oversight of ABC Entertainment as Karey Burke, who bought the current development, took over 20th Television.

CBS has given straight-to-series order to 2020 pilots The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah and Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice, and picked up to series the only completed pilot from Pilot Season 2020, comedy B Positive, as well as another Chuck Lorre-produced comedy pilot, which filmed during the pandemic, United States of Al. Of the other 2020 CBS pilots, comedies Ghosts, Wilde Things (aka Big Bad Wolfes) and The Three Of Us have been shot and remain in contention. Of the rest, drama Ways & Means, starring Patrick Dempsey, is filming this month in New York; drama Good Sam, headlined by Sophia Bush, is slated to shoot in February in Canada; and multi-cam comedy Welcome To Georgia (fka Unt. Kingsbury/Daley/Goldstein) will be taped in March in Los Angeles. Comedy Jury Duty, whose cast was released last year, is in contention for a pilot pickup. (CBS also last year rolled drama Out the Door.)

With Ways & Means and Good Sam likely in the running for next season, and CBS also expected to start production on the CSI sequel in the coming months for next season, the network will probably order just a couple of drama pilots this cycle. Same on the comedy side.

Fox in May gave a straight-to-series order to comedy Call Me Kat, which just debuted. It also recently picked up to series comedy This Country, which had filmed a portion of its pilot before the March 2020 production shutdown.

Fox has several 2020 pilots that are lined up to begin production as soon as its safe, drama The Cleaning Lady, Blood Relative and The ‘Goonies’ Reenactment project; comedy Pivoting will film in February. Ballet drama Big Leap was shooting in December but paused filming because of positive Covid-19 cases. Slated to resume in February, the project already is garnering strong buzz.

Under the straight-to-series model involving the opening of writers rooms, the network has two projects eyeing series orders, Our Kind of People, which has been heating up, and Country Music Dynasty drama.

Additionally, Fox recently picked up a Fantasy Island reboot with a straight-to-series order and has a Dan Harmon animated comedy in the works.

Of NBC’s 2020 pilots, the network picked up to series drama Debris, which had filmed a partial pilot before the March shutdown. Fellow drama La Brea, which also was put on a straight-to-series path in the summer with an order of six scripts total, is believed to be nearing a series greenlight, along with comedy pilots American Auto and Grand Crew, as the network and studios are redoing the casts’ deals due to the pandemic-related delays.

NBC has completed all 2020 pilots it committed to filming in June, comedies American Auto, Grand Crew as well as Night School, which is not going forward, and dramas Ordinary Joe and Langdon, based on Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. The two dramas are said to be in strong contention, with Ordinary Joe, whose script was a NBC brass favorite last spring, believed to be nearing a pickup.

NBC’s rolled drama pilots At That Age and Echo and comedies Crazy for You, Jefferies and Someone Out There remain in consideration for a pilot order this season. Of the five, only At That Age has kept its cast under options.

With the Summer Olympics on deck and a shelf of new series yet to premiere, NBC will likely make a few pilots this pilot season. Like with ABC, there is an additional factor contributing to pilot orders getting delayed — the pending major layoffs throughout the Entertainment Content division run by Susan Rovner.

The CW gave straight-to series orders to Superman & Lois, Walker, Kung Fu, whose pilot had shot some footage last March, and The Republic of Sarah.

Of the other 2020 pilots, the Arrow spinoff Green Arrow and the Canaries is not going forward. The 100 prequel remains in contention, possibly for a joint airing on the CW and HBO Max, though the options on the actors who appeared in the backdoor pilot episode have expired. The rolled 2020 pilots, Maverick and The Lost Boys, are believed to be in consideration for this cycle.

Like it did last year, I hear the network may go straight to series again on as many as four projects. Some of the buzziest projects that could get on that track may include the Greg Berlanti-produced Wonder Girl and another DC drama Ava DuVernay’s Naomi.

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