TV'S UPFRONT: SERIES CREATION FLIPS UPSIDE-DOWN; TALENT FIRST, CONCEPT LATER

By Published on .

In this new age of TV series development, just having a good idea doesn't cut it anymore.

You want a TV deal? First, throw that good idea of yours out. Instead, find a hot talent the networks hope to sign. (See McCarthy, Jenny.) Then, create a bidding war that guarantees a pilot will be produced (known as a "put pilot") with one of the networks, and better yet, promises a series pickup of an additional six, 13 or 22 episodes on top of that.

ADD LICENSE FEES

If you're feeling lucky, add some license fees to your contract so that, in case the network decides your show isn't what it wants after all, you and your stars will still get paid for that "guaranteed" 22-episode deal. Then, if the leverage is in your court, negotiate a plum time slot, preferably after one of the network's big hits.

Then, and only after you've made your network deal: go ahead and think up a series concept.

"The whole business has reversed itself," says Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television. "Now you put the package together, then you think creatively. The last thing to come into place now is the idea."

As the six broadcast networks compete among themselves and with cable, the race to grab that rare actor, writer or production talent has changed the face of series development.

A good portion of next season's prime-time schedules have already been promised to talent and producers with multiple-episode orders for their as-yet unseen new series.

Shows that you'll almost certainly see this fall include NBC's Jenny McCarthy, Kirstie Alley and Tony Danza sitcoms, which have all been ordered for 22 episodes; a sitcom from John Bowman and John Stamos and a drama based on the feature "Timecop," both for 13 episodes on ABC; 13 episodes of the Steven Bochco cop drama, "Brooklyn South" on CBS; and a Damon Wayans sitcom and a drama from the "Independence Day" producers, both 13 episodes, on Fox.

LEVERAGE UNHEARD OF

"What concerns me is the notion a production company will get a piece of talent, and based on that name alone, leverage a big commitment," says Bob Greenblatt, Fox exec VP for comedy and drama series. "What's thought about last is, what's the show, and who's going to write that show?"

This trend, which kicked into high gear last year after CBS and ABC made unprecedented deals to land talent such as Bill Cosby, Ted Danson and Michael J. Fox, has made series development more expensive and has left little room on the schedule for other quality shows.

"The suppliers have sort of a defeatist attitude going into the season," says Jordan Levin, senior VP for development at WB Network. "They see Fox as pretty much locked up. ABC has needs, but I don't think anyone has a strong feeling for what those needs are, and NBC and CBS have strong commitments.

WHY THE TROUBLE?

"People are wondering, `Why are we going through all this trouble?'*" he says.

In other words, if you don't land a pilot commitment at a major network, and you're not with that network's sister studio, then you can probably forget about landing a slot on its already tight schedule.

Both studio and network executives as a result fear that if they don't have a deal with the network, or if their project is with a nonaligned studio, their good ideas may never even make it to script form.

"How many good shows never got written simply because they died in the hands of deal-makers?" asks Mr. Levin.

"Almost all comedy development is nothing less than `put pilots' now," Mr. Jonas says. "There's a direct pressure to get nothing less than guaranteed production before you get in the door."

Meanwhile, the race to land talent has driven up license fees and continues to increase the deal-making threshold. Where a producer's agent might once have been satisfied with a script deal, now that agent wants a script with penalties attached. And so on.

"People competing for one particular star, all it does is up the ante," Mr. Jonas says.

"The problem is, I don't know when and how the spiral gets stopped."

FIERCE COMPETITION

A dearth of available talent makes the competition among the networks even more fierce.

"There's a constant complaint that TV isn't as good as it used to be, and it's no surprise, with the number of shows that can't be delivered. The truth is there's not enough writing talent or acting talent to go around," Mr. Jonas says.

The fight to land talent has come to the point where the networks are giving high-profile deals to people like filmmakers Ed & Brian Burns, who have never even worked in TV before.

"When a show like `Spygame,' which was produced by two nobodies and starred nobodies, gets a guaranteed 13 episodes on the air, then you scratch your head," one network executive says.

Even with big names, this season's rash of series that were committed to the airwaves before a pilot has seen mixed results.

CBS' "Ink," starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, and ABC's "Arsenio," starring Arsenio Hall, were given commitments based on star power alone and produced disappointing results.

CBS' "Cosby" and ABC's "Spin City" have pulled decent numbers. But neither was the break-out hit some predicted.

What can be done? Networks have already started slimming down their development slates. After all, if your shelf space is smaller, why expend the energy working on shows you have no room for anyway?

"It's insane the sheer amount of development that gets done at the larger networks," Mr. Levin says.

TALENT HUNT

The networks should also tone down their frenzy and instead take their time in hunting out the talent they want, Mr. Levin says.

But with the cyclical nature of TV, there will always be a network in dire straits that will push the bidding sky-high to nab a show it hopes will bring back viewers.

"It's become a cliche that `this is the toughest year ever,' but it is," Mr. Jonas says. "Each year, it gets harder to put a deal together, package it, get it on the air and produce it for the right amount of money."

In this article:
Most Popular