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The Truth Behind This Year's Whirlwind Network TV Development Season

Nov 19, 2013 07:00 AM ET
by Michael Schneider

Tina Fey

This fall’s network development frenzy has led to a slew of bigger-than-usual deals with some of the hottest names in TV. But that doesn’t mean all of these projects will actually get made.

The price tag for hot pitches has escalated thanks to the emergence of new competitors with hefty wallets, such as Netflix, plus cable networks (including WGN America, Discovery Channel and E!) spending heavily to get into the scripted business.

“It’s amazing how much it’s changed in the three years that I took off,” says former ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson, who took a breather after departing the network in 2010 and is now back as a producer. “There are many more outlets that are viable, strong competitive places that are doing really great programming.”

But with more competitors chasing shows, the standard deal of first ordering only a script has become passé. As agents and studios sell projects to the broadcast networks, they’re asking for — and getting — bigger commitments that come with hefty financial penalties if those scripts aren’t ultimately produced as pilots. Those script deals are usually gussied up with important-sounding descriptors: “Put pilot,” “production commitment” or “script + penalty.”

The networks only produce around 20 pilots each annually, usually split evenly between comedy and drama. That means there’s no way all of the projects that come with those fines will actually be produced.

As producer Mark Gordon (Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy) notes, most of those pricey promises are ultimately meaningless. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he says of the fines slapped on virtually every deal. “It’s cosmetic. It’s agents needing to prove to their clients that their project is more valuable. But if everyone has a penalty, then nothing has a penalty.”

Gordon remembers a network script last year that had a $4 million penalty attached to it. “So of course they made the pilot,” he says. “But the only thing worse than not getting your pilot picked up is getting your pilot picked up and then not going to series. If you know it’s something that they don’t like, I’d rather not make the pilot and work on other things. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.”

Those fines are ultimately more valuable to studios, Gordon says. If a major studio has several projects at the same network with huge penalties attached, they can parlay those deals and force the network to make at least one of them as a pilot.

In the end, high penalties may help a project move further down the development path, but when it comes to selecting pilots to become series, the best material usually wins. “The fact that there’s a penalty is not necessarily going to get them to make the show, and it’s certainly not going to make them put something on the air,” Gordon says. “If it’s a good script, it’s a good script.”

As the networks slog through the mostly lackluster fall 2013 season, executives are already placing their bets on big names with proven track records for next season. Some of the more promising projects that are more likely to be made include Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy starring Ellie Kemper (The Office), which has been given a 13-episode series order. And hot off the success of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan secured a 13-episode commitment from CBS for his FBI drama Battle Creek, to be overseen by David Shore (House).

McPherson is also off to a good start, landing a pilot order (contingent on finding the right cast) for the comedy Here’s Your Damn Family, which he’s executive producing with Johnny Galecki and Ricky Blitt. And like McPherson, another ex-executive is looking to make a comeback: Former MTV and The WB entertainment president David Janollari, who’s behind NBC’s possible Murder, She Wrote reboot starring Octavia Spencer.

“There’s a lot of need on broadcast TV right now,” Janollari says. “The networks are being aggressive and really stepping up, both in terms of the level of the deals as well as what they’re buying and gravitating toward in terms of content. So it’s a good time to be out there, trying to figure out what is the next big network hit.”

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