To a television network executive, the pitch sounds irresistible. “Dark but fantastical cop drama about a world in which characters inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales exist.”
This idea for a TV show has the ingredients the industry is seeking this year: a comfortable set-up (the cop show) with a slight twist (fairy tales). It beat out about 500 other pitches. Then it survived months of second guessing, rewriting, and testing with focus groups. “Grimm” is one NBC is considering adding to its fall prime-time lineup.
Network executives are currently meeting to decide which new shows to pick up and will announce their choices next week. After a year of perfecting each show, almost all of them will fail.
ABCABC is considering a remake of ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ but set in Miami instead of Los Angeles for this fall.
In the running for this fall, ABC has a remake of “Charlie’s Angels,” this time set in Miami. Don Johnson stars in the NBC pilot “A Mann’s World” about a male salon owner. CBS will bring “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” star Sarah Michelle Gellar back to the small screen with “Ringer,” a thriller about a woman on the run from the mob. On Tuesday, Fox picked up “Alcatraz” about a present-day team of investigators looking into the mysterious reappearance of the prison’s 1960s inhabitants.
“People ask me why we don’t take more risks. There’s inherent risk in everything we do,” says CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler.
All kinds of things can turn a promising idea into a flop. Casting may not click. A story line that made for a compelling pilot can’t hold an audience’s interest for 22 episodes a season, a fate that befell ABC’s “FlashForward.” Overly acquiescing to focus groups can lead to a bland finished product, producers say. Last season didn’t lead to a single breakout success.
NBC‘Grimm,’ pitched as a combination of cop drama and fairy tale, is one pilot that may be on NBC in the fall.
On a typical show, executives at a network and its parent company read outlines and scripts and request revisions. Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts will have a say in new pilots now that the cable provider owns a majority stake in ailing NBC. Executives at the studio that makes the show also give input, and sometimes it is conflicting. Both the studio and the network screen pilots to test audiences.
“Some shows end up coming out of the development process like a camel, a horse designed by committee,” says Jeff Melvoin, a veteran producer who worked on “Alias,” “Northern Exposure,” and “Hill Street Blues.” Mr. Melvoin now works on cable, which has smaller audiences and fewer demands, as an executive producer on “Army Wives.”
The development process starts with writers making pitches in early summer, submitting first drafts in the fall and revisions at Christmastime. In January, writers hear if the network has ordered up a pilot. If a pilot is picked up in May, there is a mad dash to hire writers, build sets and write additional episodes before a show airs in the fall.
TV Show Math
The ritual has always had lots of cooks in the kitchen. But in the days when three networks had little or no competition, even mediocre shows attracted viewers. The steadily falling ratings and increased pressure from cable,Netflix and the DVR competing for viewers means corporate owners pay more attention to how money is being spent and what goes on the air.
“The stakes are so high, you can pretty much put the corporate freak-out on the calendar,” says Noah Hawley whose ABC series “My Generation” was canceled last fall after two episodes.
The script for “My Generation,” based on a Swedish series, originally followed three high-school friends a decade after graduation. ABC saw potential to speak to a wider audience. It changed the show to tell the story of 10 friends including the jock, the cheerleader and the geek. Mr. Hawley says he spent two to three weeks debating with network and studio executives about a song in the second episode. It stayed in but some verses were cut as a compromise.
Barry Jossen, executive vice president at ABC Entertainment Group, says TV is subjective. “We always do everything we think is right. But there’s still an alchemy of those [pilots] connecting in a broader popular way that turns a TV series into a hit,” he says.
Networks often re-jigger a concept to fulfill a scheduling need. Darker dramas run at 10 p.m., family-oriented shows at 8 p.m., and something in between at 9 p.m. “The joke among writers is if you go and pitch an idea about a hip, edgy childless married couple in their 20s, the network says ‘That’s a great idea but we need to air it at 8 p.m. so what if they have this savvy 6-year-old who’s so smart he talks like a grown-up?'” says Bill Lawrence, co-creator of ABC’s “Cougar Town.”
Four episodes into “Cougar Town,” Mr. Lawrence changed the show to focus on the ensemble cast of friends, rather than Courteney Cox’s trysts with younger men, which turned off some viewers.
CBS, the top-ranked network in total prime-time viewers, limits the executives who offer input on new series. In addition to Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, “it’s me, it’s the head of the department, it’s the show runner. We don’t have committees,” Ms. Tassler says.
Tracking How Viewers Channel Surf
A drop in viewers after the first commercial break, 15 minutes in, can signal trouble for new shows. Audiences tuned out during the debuts of these recent flops. (in millions of viewers)
- Lone Star (Fox): 5.2 million from 9:00 to 9:15 p.m. and 3.8 million from 9:15 to 9:30 p.m.
- My Generation (ABC): 5.3 million from 8:00 to 8:15 p.m. and 5.0 million from 8:15 to 8:30 p.m.
- Chaos (CBS): 7.03 million from 8:00 to 8:15 p.m. and 6.3 million from 8:15 to 8:30 p.m.
- The Cape (NBC): 8.8 million from 9:00 to 9:15 p.m. and 8.5 million from 9:15 to 9:30 p.m.
On the short-lived 2010 series “Undercovers,” about a husband-and-wife spy team, NBC preferred to see the couple in action rather than in their side jobs as L.A. caterers. A test audience said the bad guy wasn’t bad enough. Executive producer Josh Reims cut some kitchen scenes and added a scene in which the villain kills his right-hand man.
“We had always said this wasn’t going to be a dark and serious show,” Mr. Reims says. “Undercovers,” of course, could have turned out exactly as he envisioned and still flopped, he says.
Executives say any artistic pursuit comes with long odds. “Most movies fail, most books fail, and most albums aren’t that good, whether they’re by committee or solo practitioners,” says David Madden, president of Fox Television Studios, which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp.
At the upfronts, the annual meeting of the TV industry and marketers next week, networks base advertising rates on a guarantee that new shows deliver a certain number of viewers. When a show falls short, it faces cancellation.
That’s a change from when three networks dominated and could afford to leave a struggling series on air long enough to make improvements. After tepid ratings, NBC executives gave “Seinfeld” this note in 1989: Add a girl. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine Benes was added and “Seinfeld” became one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.
“Looking back to some of the most successful shows of modern-day TV, it’s a miracle they made it,” says Warren Littlefield, NBC’s president of entertainment at the time.
Networks analyze how ratings drop off during commercial breaks, a sign that viewers have sampled, and rejected, a series. Last month CBS pulled its spy comedy “Chaos” after three episodes. The debut episode opened with seven million viewers. After 15 minutes, 6.3 million were watching, according to Nielsen Co.
By the time a series premieres, writers typically have four episodes finished. There’s no time to improve elements that might not work.
The CBS sitcom “$#*! My Dad Says” has been tweaked at several points. Prior to the premiere, the writers put a new actor in the role of the slacker son. After a first season with less than 10 million viewers for each episode, they added a love interest for William Shatner’s curmudgeonly father character Dr. Edison Milford Goodson III.
“The things that you want out of sitcoms are characters you warm to and want to hang out with over time. Think of it as comfort food,” says executive producer David Kohan. CBS will announce next week whether “$#*! My Dad Says” will return for a second season.