The TV networks and studios have been trying for years to transition to year-round development, avoiding the huge cost of shooting pilots that mostly disappear without a trace before the season starts in September.It looks like a lot of the push for a new model is coming from the fact that cable networks are having a lot more success using different strategies:
Now the prospect of a long strike might present the best opportunity yet to do that. Several networks, including Fox and NBC, are said to be working on new development strategies, including forgoing pilots altogether or borrowing from the cable development model.
A drama pilots costs between $5 million and $10 million to make. Sitcoms are almost as expensive. With most networks ordering 20-30 pilots out of more than 100 scripts and picking up about a quarter of them to series, pilots have become a major drag on the conglomerates' bottom line.
Last month, News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin touted to investors the savings in pilot-season costs that the Fox Broadcasting parent was making because of the writers strike. NBC is going further, eliminating pilots in some cases and going straight to series.
"Pilots are ridiculously expensive, you're fighting for the same pool of talent and they don't represent what the series would be anyway," one top network executive said.
Even for the top-tier ad-supported cable networks, their budgets are 25%-30% lower than those of similar broadcast series. Despite that, they've been able to attract such top talent as Glenn Close (FX's "Damages") Holly Hunter (TNT's "Saving Grace") and Kyra Sedgwick (TNT's "The Closer") as well as big audiences, crossing the 10 million viewers mark in the summer with "Closer." And some of them, including USA Network's "Burn Notice" and "Psych," can even be recycled on broadcast TV this season if the strike drags on.Unfortunately the article concludes that the whole idea of changing models may just be a bunch of talk because as long as the ad buyers are buying in bulk (instead of per show) and the studio executives are getting hired/fired based on show success, the studios are stuck in a rut which the strike may only have temporarily disrupted.
This past summer, about a dozen scripted series premiered on ad-supported cable. Seven of them -- TNT's "Grace," FX's "Damages," USA's "Notice" and "The Starter Wives," Lifetime's "Army Wives," TBS' "The Bill Engvall Show" and AMC's "Mad Men" -- were picked up for a second season.
This fall, 23 scripted series premiered on broadcast. Only eight of them -- ABC's "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice," "Samantha Who?" and "Dirty Sexy Money" and CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," NBC's "Chuck" and "Life" and the CW's "Gossip Girl" -- have been ordered for a full season.
The pilot-to-series ratio for the cable networks is impressive, too. For example, USA picked up all of its three pilots to series.
Cable networks generally spend more time on development. It took three years between the pitch and the airdate for FX's "The Riches" and "Grace." The cable networks, which order about 15-20 scripts a year and two to three pilots a year, often commission two to three additional scripts after the pilot to see where the series is headed before handing out an episodic order.