How Broadcast TV Pilots Will Be Affected by Coronavirus Delays

Insiders say networks are committed to completing all the pilots that have been ordered

For the broadcast TV networks and new pilots that were set to begin shooting in the coming weeks, the shuttering of productions around the globe because of the coronavirus pandemic comes at a particularly unfortunate time and could have ramifications that will be felt for months.

The past week has seen rapid escalation in the pandemic’s effect on the TV business, as productions around the world were forced to hit the pause button in compliance with health advisories — and, in many cases, governmental mandates — barring public gatherings. Nearly every show or pilot currently in production was forced to suspend physical production for two to three weeks, with those yet to begin delayed indefinitely. Some projects close to completion were allowed the weekend to ramp down, as the first full week of social distancing gets underway.

For most of the season’s pilots, the shutdown came before they even had a chance to begin filming. Casting and pre-production were well underway, with an eye to begin physical production in the coming weeks. The studios’ move to call off nearly all filming late last week leaves those timelines scrambled.

At least one pilot was able to complete filming, the Chuck Lorre comedy “B Positive,” but for just about everyone else, the future remains uncertain. Studios and networks have pledged to monitor the situation closely, but some tough decisions about when or whether to resume filming will have to be made if the pandemic doesn’t resolve itself in a timely manner.

According to multiple network insiders, the broadcasters still remain committed to filming all of the pilots that have already been ordered. That may involve shifting some pilots off-cycle, potentially missing the May upfront deadline and simply accepting that some new shows won’t be ready for a fall premiere. But none of the networks are keen to hand out series orders to shows without a full episode.

For the individual networks, how they proceed will depend heavily on how many holes they’ll have in their schedule come fall. Luckily, the shutdown comes in a year when the broadcast networks were already ordering fewer in-cycle pilots than they had in the past, with a disproportionate number of new shows getting series orders right out of the gate.

The CW had already lined up reboots of “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Superman & Lois” well before the coronavirus outbreaks began. ABC has the David E. Kelley drama “The Big Sky” ordered straight-to-series, while Fox has given a series commitment to the comedy “Call Me Kat.” NBC alone has three comedies already going to series — “The Kenan Show,” which was rolled over from last season; the untitled Tina Fey-Robert Carlock single-cam starring Ted Danson; and the Dwayne Johnson comedy “Young Rock,” announced earlier this year.

Some existing series may also see a boost if pilots don’t get back up and running right away, insiders said. Should the networks be stuck without new series to roll out in the fall, that could be good news for shows that otherwise would’ve been on the bubble for renewal. With so much still up in the air, a known show with a reliable, if smaller than ideal, audience may be more appealing than ever.

One other possible outcome floated by multiple network insiders was that upfronts simply happen later this year. Though they regularly happen the second week of May, every major broadcaster has called off their glitzy in-person sales pitches in favor of virtual or digital presentations of their upcoming season of programming for advertisers, all of which could theoretically happen at a later date.

No plans to delay upfronts have been made yet — few concrete plans have been made at all — but the fate of this season’s pilots and their production timelines would depend on such a decision.

Tony Maglio contributed to this story.

Jennifer Maas

Jennifer Maas

TV Reporter • • @jmaas421

Reid Nakamura

Reid Nakamura

TV reporter • • @reidnakamura

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