April 21, 2020

deadline pilot season 2020 limbo networks mull straight to series orders pilot panic

Coronavirus Television COVID 19 COVID-19 pilot season featured image

It’s April, the month when Deadline usually launches its Pilot Panic feature, where we track buzz on the broadcast pilots as they go through production and testing.

This year, there is no pilot production or testing, there actually isn’t much of anything typically associated with pilot season besides the panic, which has been setting in — and growing — as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Over the past month and a half, pilot season has been suspended, and upfront presentations have been canceled. Yet, we could somehow potentially end up in a quasi-normal situation, with the broadcast networks making new series orders in May.

There may not be decisions made on every single pilot, with only the strongest contenders getting straight-to-series pickups. But in a situation like the present one, anything resembling normalcy is an achievement.

Likely to be among any series orders is the only completed broadcast pilot this year, the CBS/WBTV multi-camera comedy B Positive, from Chuck Lorre and Marco Pennette, which I hear already has been making hires for potential series production. Also reportedly looking good is the other broadcast pilot to have filmed any footage this year, Fox’s This Country, after a short presentation cut from the very limited amount of film has been well received.

As Deadline reported a month ago, following the unprecedented Hollywood shutdown over the COVID-19 outbreak, all broadcast networks ordered one backup script each for all of their pilots.

There were a few exceptions. A couple of high-profile drama pilots, including CBS’ The Lincoln Lawyer and ABC’s Rebel. had writers rooms set up pre-COVID to produce multiple scripts for series consideration. Those shows continue to track well.And I hear there are 1-2 pilots, including one at CBS, whose creative teams declined the backup script order, instead relying on the pilot script to speaks for itself. But for the most part, pilot creators went back to work crafting a new script.

Since then, I hear ABC ordered a second backup script on all of its pilots, while Fox ordered an extra script on some of its. CBS and NBC are said to be sticking with their original orders of one additional script per pilot.

The pilot writers and producers also are working on additional materials to strengthen their case for pickup, including bibles and detailed story and character arcs to be presented to the networks along with the scripts. There also have been out-of-the-box ideas at at least two networks, like filming remotely a short scene or other related video to accompany the scripts in hopes they might boost the project’s chances.

For now, it looks like networks plan to pull the trigger on straight-to-series orders based on scripts and additional materials. It is possible that for some projects the networks could opt to go through a writers room stage or still film a pilot off-cycle. (It appears likely that at least some pilots will not be produced.) As one executive noted, “all options are on the table.”

Overall, as Deadline reported in March, the coronavirus-impacted 2020 pilot season is bringing broadcast networks closer to the streaming development model built on multiple scripts triggering a straight-to-series order — something the networks had been flirting with, but the pull of the traditional pilot cycle had been too hard to break away from. As we suggested, the jolt to the traditional broadcast development season this year caused by the pandemic may be felt years after it is over.

Earlier this month, a New York Times story about Bog Iger reported that the Disney Executive Chairman had asked associates to explore permanent changes across businesses that might include no longer producing costly pilots for shows that might not air.

That may be what the future of broadcast development looks like. For now, the networks have 55 pilots they have ordered and, for the most part cast, whose fate they need to decide. But before the networks make pickup calls, the studios behind the pilots need to pay the actors who had already been cast. Five and a half weeks into the production shutdown, that had not been done yet but I hear the first payments may get on their way to performers later this week.

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