After A Lackluster Year, Networks Aim to Make More Noise This Pilot Season
Michael J Fox | Photo Credits: Mike Coppola/Getty Image
The broadcast networks are desperate for your attention. They know that you're overwhelmed with their programming and distracted by cable, the Internet and now even streaming services. Plus, they didn't produce a new major hit this season, and their ratings are suffering for it.
That's why this year's crop of nearly 100 series pilots at the five networks (48 comedy and 50 drama from the five networks) is all about being big: big stars, big producers, big concepts.
"Executives are looking to find shows that can break out from the clutter," says Terence Carter, Fox's senior vice president of drama development. "There's a far greater number of shows that launch all at the same time. It's really evident with how many pilots are going right now. It's mind-numbing."
Says Sony Pictures TV co-president Zack Van Amburg: "I know marketing budgets are thin, and inevitably these networks are able to market only a couple of things when they launch. Either a show has to be a self-starter, or if you're going to spend $10 million on a marketing campaign — yikes! — it better work."
A stellar script is no longer enough for a network to order a pilot. Projects with talent already attached — or adaptations of existing material — rise to the top. A large percentage of this year's pilots are based on intellectual property such as books, movies, foreign series (Israeli, British, Argentine and Australian shows are all in the works), old TV shows, comics — and in the case of ABC's Big Thunder, a Disneyland ride.
"We certainly saw an emerging trend that the bigger packages with fewer variables left to them — it's based on a format, it's based around an actor, it's created by a wonderful showrunner, a director is already attached — meant the less anxiety we found at the networks," Van Amburg says. "It proved to be a good strategy."
That's how Sony wound up securing a whopping 22-episode order from NBC for its Michael J. Fox comedy, which had sparked a major bidding war between the networks. Sony also made some noise with its Beverly Hills Cop reboot from executive producer Eddie Murphy (who will also cameo as Axel Foley). The addition of superstar showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield) helped give the new version even more buzz. CBS won the rights to that project after a competitive bidding battle.
"We were fortunate that a lot of broadcast networks wanted it," Van Amburg says. "It really is a continuation of where the story would have gone. If you were a fan of the movie you're going to be excited to see your old friend Axel Foley on the screen again."
Producers are also taking a cue from the few things that worked this season: The success of CBS' Sherlock Holmes update Elementary and The CW's Arrow (based on the DC Comics character) have launched another round of pilots featuring familiar characters and franchises. Fox's Kevin Bacon thriller The Following has inspired more A-list stars to return to TV. NBC's Revolution has made it OK to keep trying more sci-fi. But the two shows that continue to influence network execs the most are two of the top ratings-grabbers currently on TV: AMC's The Walking Dead and ABC's Modern Family.