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New Season Scramble: TV Networks Ax Shows, Producers in Series of 11th Hour Fall Fixes

Series are being killed and showrunners canned with fall premieres just weeks away

With the fall TV season about to start, broadcast networks are getting their houses in order — and taking out the trash.

NBC dropped plans Monday for a revival of the ’90s comedy “Coach” slated for midseason. Cutting “Coach” was the latest move by a broadcaster to fix or get rid of a show that wasn’t working as expected.

August saw the exit of showrunners from four upcoming broadcast series: Greg Malins from Fox’s “The Grinder,” Andrew Dettman from NBC’s “Chicago Med,” Jennifer Schuur and Josh Reims from ABC’s “The Catch,” and Cynthia Cidre from ABC’s “Blood & Oil.”

The changes demonstrate just how much pressure networks are under to get shows right from the get-go in a crowded marketplace, and how narrow their windows are in which to make big decisions.

Such moves can be blips on the road to renewal. More often, they’re harbingers of dark times ahead: NBC replaced Ed Bernero with Dario Scardapane as head of the Katherine Heigl drama “State of Affairs” last August — but the show still failed to connect with audiences.

Either way, four in a three-week period is a high concentration of fail — and it comes at a time when the industry is testing the limits of its creative capacity.

At the Television Critics Association press tour last month, FX CEO John Landgraf predicted that cable, broadcast and streaming services will air more than 400 original series this year — nearly double their output from 2010.

That rapid increase has taxed the industry’s already exhausted creative infrastructure. Former Fox chief Kevin Reilly used to rail against the excesses and illogic of pilot season, which crams all hiring on prospective new shows into a short period. Dana Walden, who with fellow Fox studio boss Gary Newman took over the broadcast network following Reilly’s ouster last year, beat the anti-pilot season drum herself at TCA.

“There’s a complete necessity to break out of that pilot cycle where we all cast and search for directors during the same six weeks of the year,” Walden said, adding that she and Newman believe in “year-round development.”

Breaking up pilot season is a nice idea. The process forces studios to compete feverishly to lock up not just actors, but also showrunners, directors of photography, line producers, studio space and everything else that goes into making a show.

That scramble leads inevitably to sub-optimal hiring decisions that have to be walked back later. With more shows being produced and the pool from which talent is drawn remaining mostly static, more bad fits are likely to happen.

But the alternative to the pilot process can be risky straight-to-series orders in which executives make pickup decisions without the benefit of seeing a produced pilot beforehand. The “Coach” revival resulted from such a process, and was subjected to immediate public criticism after it was announced.

At the TCA press tour, one journalist suggested to NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt that some viewed the show as “a practical joke.” Greenblatt responded, “One man’s practical joke is another man’s hit show.”

“Coach” is not yet dead. Universal Television may shop it elsewhere. After all, the production studio managed to place “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” at Netflix after NBC dropped it. The Tina Fey-produced sitcom just recieved six Emmy nominations.

If there is an upside to the content bubble and the pressures of the current landscape, it’s that a show’s chances to escape death are as many as there are networks and services interested in saving it.

So regardless of whether “Coach” is a practical joke, it could yet turn out to be a hit show.