Written off last year amid the chaos of the writers’ strike, pilot season is back in a fairly robust way this year, with the broadcast networks in the final stages of mulling through about 70 scripted projects in advance of next week’s upfronts to advertisers.
That bounty is only about a dozen off from spring 2007, the last normal pilot cycle before the writer’s strike.
Part of this resurgence has to do with attrition of returning shows, which could ultimately turn out to be pretty heavy this year. Cash-strapped networks are a drawing an especially hard line on the escalating production costs typically associated with some older shows. (See accompanying article, "The Casualty Report.")
At NBC, for example, series including "Law & Order," "Medium" and "Chuck," which are still serviceable in terms of ratings delivery, remained on the renewal bubble last week, even as the network began to roll out its fall slate to advertisers.
But the big news this year is comedy. About half of the new series being considered for next fall are sitcoms, and more than half of those are the cheaper-to-produce multi-camera. In fact, networks are evaluating about 20 traditional laugh-track comedies for fall launch — a huge number considering that only a handful of these shows have even been developed in recent years.
Here’s a brief look at where each of the Big Four networks stand, with the big decisions coming during the upfronts showcases, which start May 18:
Delivering its upfront presentation May 19, ABC suffered some nasty hangover effects from the writers’ strike, with a number of hour-long series — "Pushing Daisies," "Eli Stone," "Dirty Sexy Money" — losing momentum during an extended hiatus and ultimately succumbing to cancellation this season.
Meanwhile, veteran "Boston Legal" is leaving the schedule, as is "Life on Mars," based on the hit British out-there drama, which couldn’t find enough audience to justify its ambitious scale.
The need to establish a few good hour-longs is compounded by the fact that "Lost" is going away next year, and with NBC giving up on scripted drama at 10 p.m. for Jay Leno, now is a pretty good time for the other networks to make hay.
Having considered a dozen drama projects this spring, ABC has already greenlit "Flash Forward," an ABC Studios adaptation of Robert J. Sawyer’s best-selling sci-fi novel that stars Joseph Fiennes as the leader of a team of FBI agents investigating an experiment gone way wrong. David S. Goyer ("Batman Begins," "Blade") and Brannon Braga ("Star Trek: Enterprise") co-wrote the pilot script.
Other dramas under consideration include a series remake of NBC’s ‘80s alien-invasion-themed mini-event "V," cop-show "The Forgotten" from Jerry Bruckheimer, the "Romeo and Juliet"-themed "Empire State" and "Inside the Box," which revolves around a D.C.-based TV news crew and stars “24’s” Kim Raver.
Meanwhile, ABC has an industry-leading 14 comedy pilots under consideration and has already placed a 13-episode order for 20th Television’s single-camera,
mockumentary-style "Modern Family" starring Ed O’Neill.
Also catching buzz is "Cougar Town," a multi-cam sitcom produced by "Scrubs" showrunner Bill Lawrence and starring Courteney Cox as a 40-year-old single mom. The network is also giving serious consideration to Ricky Blitt’s "Romantically Challenged," which stars Alyssa Milano, and "Awesome Hank," featuring Kelsey Grammer as a down-and-out Wall Street trader. Also in the mix is Cedric the Entertainer cop comedy "The Law."
Beyond new comedies, ABC is thinking seriously about bringing back "Scrubs," albeit in a very different incarnation, sans star Zach Braff (at least as an every-show regular) and showrunner Lawrence. The midseason-debuting "Better Off Ted," which has been well reviewed at least, also is a likely returnee.
Presenting May 20, CBS is also looking to capitalize on NBC’s Leno strategy. In fact, with 11 drama pilots under consideration, the Eye network seems to be fixated on the audience being abandoned by what was once NBC’s most vital 10 p.m. franchise, "ER."
The network will very likely end up with Julianna Margulies on its schedule. The former "ER" regular is set to star in legal drama "The Good Wife," which is reportedly a lock for the fall schedule. Another "ER" face, Sherry Stringfield, stars alongside Skeet Ulrich and John C. McGinley in "Back," about a 9/11 victim who tries to reconnect with his family after being MIA for eight years.
Several medical dramas are being mulled over, including Bruckheimer’s "Miami Trauma" and "Three Rivers," starring Alex O’Loughlin.
CBS also intends to expand its "NCIS" franchise, with showrunner Shane Brennan set to double up on an untitled spin-off starring Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.
As for returning dramas that have been on the fence, “Ghost Whisperer” has just been given a renewal, but "The Unit" doesn’t figure to come back with exec producer Shawn Ryan moving over to Fox to be the new showrunner for "Lie to Me."
Fall launch “Eleventh Hour” faces possible extinction, too, while “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” have yet to receive their commitments. On the comedy side, “How I Met Your Mother,” “Rules of Engagement,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Gary Unmarried” all look to return.
As for new shows, "Accidentally on Purpose" starring Jenna Elfman is said by network sources to be a leading female-targeted candidate to help bolster the Wednesday-night comedy block. And two youth-targeted Sony Pictures TV projects, "Happiness Isn’t Everything" starring Jason Biggs and "Waiting to Die" from exec producers Mitch Hurwitz and Eric and Kim Tannenbaum, are looking to be paired with "Big Bang Theory" on Mondays.
Presenting May 18, first-place Fox has a limited number of vacancies, with action-oriented hour-longs "Prison Break" and "Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles" leaving a schedule that will remain otherwise largely intact.
DC Comics-inspired "Human Target" starring Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley has been given a greenlight. As has the single-camera comedy "Sons of Tucson," about a con artist hired by three brothers to pretend he’s their father while the real patriarch is in prison.
In an active year for medical-drama development across all networks, Fox is also pondering "Maggie Hill," starring Christina Cole as a brilliant female surgeon dealing with adult-onset schizophrenia.
Fox has already renewed midseason premiere "Lie to Me," putting the aforementioned Shawn Ryan in charge of it.
As far as comedies go, Fox has had limited success launching them the last several seasons. Kelsey Grammer’s "Back to You" underperformed in 2007, and last season’s abysmal "Do Not Disturb" succumbed after only three episodes.
Besides "Tucson," the network has two other chances to get things right this time, with Ryan Murphy’s hour-long musical comedy "Glee" already on the schedule, and the "Family Guy" animated spinoff "Cleveland" previously greenlit.
The network is also pondering the African-American-targeted "Brothers,” starring former New York Giants great Michael Strahan, CCH Pounder and Carl Weathers.
After conducting its "infront" presentation May 4, during which it announced four new dramas and two new comedies, NBC will host a May 19 follow-up meeting with advertisers to release the final unresolved details regarding its fall schedule.
The network continues to weigh the fates of hour-longs "Medium," "Chuck" and "Law & Order." Decisions not to go forward with those shows would render last-place NBC with yet more holes, following the departure of "ER" and a fall campaign that saw hour-long launches "Knight Rider" and "My Own Worst Enemy" go nowhere.
NBC is also dealing with the loss of "Life," its Zen-themed crime drama, as well as the likely departure of Thursday-night comedy "My Name is Earl."
The new dramas include "Trauma," a San Francisco-set series about emergency first-responders from producer Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") and Universal Media Studios; "Parenthood," a TV adaptation executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and starring Peter Krause, Maura Tierney and Craig T. Nelson; medical drama "Mercy" from Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun; and the post-apocalyptic "Day One" from "Heroes’" Jesse Alexande. The latter is set for a mid-season bow coinciding with the network’s coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Meanwhile, comedy pick-ups include "Community," a single-camera series starring Joel McHale ("The Soup") and Chevy Chase; and "100 Questions," a youth-oriented series about a women seeking love through online dating from James Burrows ("Will & Grace," "Friends").