Pilot Season 2020: Networks Order Backup Scripts, May Move Toward Streaming Model Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Pilot Season 2020: Networks Order Backup Scripts, May Move Toward Streaming Model Amid Coronavirus Crisis


The ongoing coronavirus health crisis is giving broadcast pilot season a jolt that might be felt long after the global pandemic is over.

Following the unprecedented Hollywood shutdown over the COVID-19 outbreak, which left all but one broadcast pilot in limbo, I hear the networks have ordered at least one backup script for their projects. Writing is one of very few things that can be done during the shutdown — individually or via virtual writers rooms — and the networks are using that to move the development process further. I hear ABC, NBC, Fox and the CW have ordered a second script for all their drama and comedy pilots, with ABC picking up more than one script on some projects. I hear CBS has commissioned a second script for most of its pilots.

Pilot Season 2020 In Turmoil Due To Coronavirus As Pilots Get Pushed

As Deadline reported last week, with no end of the pandemic in sight, the broadcast networks likely were going to reassess their pilot slates, with some projects possibly going straight to series.

There were several high-profile drama pilots that already were on a series-pickup track before the pandemic hit the U.S., with writers rooms set up, including CBS’ The Lincoln Lawyer and ABC’s Rebel. (CBS’ Clarice had a mini room set up to break stories for the pilot.)

The rest of the pilots currently are producing a backup script, and some of the ABC pilots are writing more than one.

The broadcast networks have not yet unveiled what the next step in the process would be, but I hear some still are hoping to make their crops of pilots. They are using the down time to have a second episode written so the pilots that did get picked up to series hit the ground running.

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Other sources suggest that the projects with the strongest pilot and backups scripts might get permission to open a writers room and start working on follow-up scripts to be considered for a straight-to-series order.

That would bring broadcast TV in line with the streaming development model — something the networks had been flirting with, but the pull of the traditional pilot cycle had been too hard to break from.

If the trial-by-necessity is successful, we can see the broadcast development model shift away from pilots toward straight-to-series orders, especially for dramas, which are more expensive to pilot, and where having a strong plot and mythology is key vs. comedy pilots, where cast chemistry — something that pilots are great tests for — is paramount.

I hear the backup script strategy also is being used by cable and streaming networks that employ a pilot model for their pilots that had been shut down by the coronavirus crisis.

There is a possibility that some broadcast pilots won’t be made. I hear that complex conversations with studios, producers and unions are underway as to who will be paid if a pilot that had been greenlighted, staffed and cast is not produced. If the current health emergency goes on for more than eight weeks, networks and studios could enforce force majeure provisions to not honor deals, but there are important talent relationships involved in many of the projects, so amicable resolution may be a more prudent way out of a difficult situation.

As Deadline reported last week, out of about 55 broadcast pilots (excluding straight-to-series orders), only one has been completed: the CBS/WBTV multi-camera comedy B Positive, from Chuck Lorre and Marco Pennette. The project starring Thomas Middleditch and Annaleigh Ashford already had been garnering strong early buzz. 

A handful of other pilots have filmed partial pilots, some of them close to completion: the CW/WBTV’s Kung Fu; a couple of NBC pilots, including Ordinary Joe starring James Wolk; Fox/Lionsgate comedy This Country, based on the British format; and the CW/WBTV drama The Lost Boys, a reimagining of the cult classic movie.

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Additionally, a number of projects — including Fox’s Call Me Kat, ABC’s The Big Sky, NBC’s LA Mayor and Young Rock and the CW’s Superman & Lois and Walker — have straight-to-series orders and have writers rooms going. Most of them were planning to film a pilot episode during pilot season, take a break to assess it before starting series production. They will now go straight to series production.

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