NEW YORK — Right now the broadcast networks are feverishly fashioning their fall prime-time schedules. Some 104 pilots are being screened by execs and test audiences, with just one-third expected to pass muster and become series for the 2013-14 season.
Once they premiere, maybe a dozen will actually click with viewers and win a second year.
"Then how many series make it to the magic four-year mark, where they really make money? Maybe half of that," says analyst Brad Adgate of media-buying firm Horizon Media.
Extravagant? Wasteful? Maybe. But the program development process at the broadcast networks is also well-entrenched. And even profitable.
"When you get a show like 'The Big Bang Theory,' it pays for a lot of missteps," notes Adgate with a laugh.
Anticipating the "upfront week" of May 13 (when ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW unveil their lineups for advertisers and the world), industry analysts and media writers have been handicapping each network pilot, described for them but sight unseen, as a familiar springtime guessing game: Which will be among the chosen few? Which are doomed to oblivion?
Adgate likes the sound of "Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D," a comic-book adventure brought to the TV screen by hitmaker and fan-boy fave Joss Whedon for ABC.
He also likes Fox's "Rake," starring Greg Kinnear as a lawyer who is brilliant but flawed (it's one of four pilots with a "House"-esque brilliant-but-flawed hero). And then there's CBS' comedy pilot, "Mom," produced by sitcom legend Chuck Lorre (whose credits include CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and the aforementioned "Big Bang Theory").
Already a lock is Michael J. Fox's sitcom (with a guaranteed NBC order of 22 episodes). Almost as much of a sure thing would seem to be "NCIS: Red," a spinoff of CBS' ratings juggernaut "NCIS: Los Angeles" (itself a spinoff of ratings juggernaut "NCIS").
Needless to say, CBS (with its murderer's row of sitcoms and its finely wrought portfolio of procedurals) is in better shape as next fall looms than other networks you might mention, such as NBC, whose February plunge to an unprecedented sixth place in the ratings (behind Spanish-language Univision) after having been on top last fall has become part of TV lore.
Even so, NBC can claim last fall's closest thing to a hit, "Revolution." This stylish, apocalyptic drama has already won a second-season pickup.
So will a number of other freshman shows, if only by the skin of their teeth. But generally it was a tepid season for new shows, raising the question: Were all of last year's 89 pilots lacking — or did network execs simply choose the wrong ones?
Amazon thinks it knows a better way for separating wheat from the chaff. As it jumps into first-run video, it has placed pilots for eight comedy series and six kids' series on its website, and invited the public to watch and rate them before their fate is decided.
In the age of interactive television, maybe the networks should consider a similar wisdom-of-crowds policy: Air its pilots as special prime-time programming and let viewers log their responses on the second-screen devices they've grown ever so fond of. (After all, would viewers last spring have ordered up NBC's monkey sitcom "Animal Practice" or given a go-ahead to "Made in Jersey," the CBS law drama that went bust in two weeks?)
It's no secret the pressure has never been greater on the broadcast networks to generate robust hits.
After all, this past season broadcast TV was upstaged by nearly every other video provider: Netflix with its all-at-once release of 13 episodes of "House of Cards" (and the imminent revival of "Arrested Development"); public television's "Downton Abbey," boasting a 12-million-viewer finale and thunderous buzz; History's "The Bible" and AMC's "The Walking Dead," two cable series that dwarfed their broadcast rivals.
Has broadcast television lost the ability to rise above the pack it once encompassed almost solely by itself? Has it forever relinquished its role as trendsetter to cable and online?
Ask David S. Goyer, creator of the historical thriller "Da Vinci's Demons" currently airing on the Starz premium network.
Four years ago, ABC picked up the pilot he had written for his sci-fi drama "FlashForward" and began heavy promotion for its fall 2009 launch.
"But as soon as the pilot was finished," recalls Goyer, "we were hit by the network with this massive wave of market research of what the show 'should' be. It was completely at odds with what I and the other writers had set out to do."
Goyer left after 10 episodes were shot. The series was canceled after one season.
"I was so disheartened by that experience that I decided I wanted to try my hand at cable, because I'd heard that in cable they respect the creator more."
That's what he says he found at Starz: "The eight episodes of 'Da Vinci's Demons' represents, by and large, the show that I want to make."
From Marjorie Kaplan's perspective as president of Animal Planet, cable has become the go-to place for TV's most creative producers.
"They see you can do 'The Shield,' 'The Walking Dead,' 'Game of Thrones,' and the network won't stop you," she says. "Cable has been great at creating an incubator environment for unbelievably talented, idiosyncratic creators who can't get their work done other places, or who don't want their work molested other places."
Granted, the talented and prolific J.J. Abrams is a creator of NBC's "Revolution," and for next season he has not one but two pilots in the running: "Human" on Fox and "Believe" on NBC.
But will either erupt with the power to shock or rock audiences the way his groundbreaking "Lost" did when it burst on ABC a dozen years ago?
"Lost" was a glorious game-changer, a rare shock wave on broadcast TV. Now can broadcast, so practiced at serving up new rounds of the familiar, deliver the level of surprise viewers are coming to expect from cable?
Broadcast's 104 pilots hold an answer to that question. But it may not be much of a surprise.
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