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Pitch is in, but how will it play?

With network lineups in fair to good shape, fierce competition is expected for the few fall slots available.

January 10, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

As television networks launch what amounts to this season's second wave of new programs -- from ABC's revival of "Dragnet" to Fox's latest twist on dating shows, "Joe Millionaire" -- industry hand-wringing has already begun regarding next fall and what could be the fiercest competition for prime-time real estate in years.

NBC and CBS are both enjoying broad success across their lineups, meaning the two leading networks will have relatively few slots to showcase new series.

In addition, NBC recently secured another year of "Friends," TV's top-rated comedy, buying the network additional time to develop a worthy heir. And despite struggling through subpar seasons, ABC and Fox have at least in the short term patched some holes in their lineups with staged reality programs, such as "The Bachelorette" and "American Idol," respectively.

None of this is particularly good news for new-series candidates -- from Fox's modernized Romeo and Juliet set around the adult-film industry, titled "Skin," to ABC's "Mr. and Mr. Nash," about "a gay couple who stumble into detective work through their regular gig as interior designers."

In a Darwinian process, the lengthy list of such projects will gradually be whittled down as suspense builds toward May, when the networks annually unveil their fall prime-time lineups, trying to impress media buyers ready to place billions of dollars in advertising.

Among the more nagging problems associated with program development, industry sources say, is that everything works backward from the dates of those advertiser presentations, prompting a crush of activity in a relatively small window from January through April.

"When you're all competing -- not just for the same actors but the same directors and facilities -- you're invariably lessening the craftsmanship you can bring to the product," said Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth, whose studio produces "The West Wing" and "Friends."

That pressure could be exacerbated this year if less shelf space is available for newcomers. As it is, the process of jockeying for the bankable stars that networks covet puts studios at odds, with certain actors appearing in more than one prototype -- hedging their bets in case the other doesn't make the cut.

"Everybody's fighting over the same talent pool, the same actors," said Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television. "The only way the system's going to change is if the way the money gets put down -- the way the advertising is placed -- changes."

"Casting's going to be insane this year, and the deals will be tougher, because there are going to be fewer time slots," agreed one agent, on condition of anonymity. "Say what you want about television, but it's working right now."

Executives at the six broadcast networks are currently ordering series prototypes, or pilots. Networks, producers and agents fly partially blind through the ritual known as prime-time development, beginning with hundreds of scripts before thinning the herd to 120 or so series candidates that yield, finally, the few dozen that actually make it onto the air.

Since the playing field expanded in the mid-1990s with the addition of the WB and UPN networks, as many as three dozen programs have been introduced each fall. That number, however, could drop if networks are more conservative in their scheduling approach.

NBC will order only a handful of new dramatic pilots -- fewer than half as many as usual -- largely because the network's shelves are pretty well stocked by three versions of "Law & Order," plus "ER," "Third Watch" and the nostalgic new series "American Dreams."

"Given that we don't have that many needs, we can be a bit more judicious about our development," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.

How many time periods open up on the six networks hinges in part on the performances of a flurry of new series premiering through March. Last spring, for example, ABC introduced "The Bachelor," a dating show that built into a clear-cut hit, becoming the centerpiece of the network's Wednesday-night lineup. A spinoff of that show, "The Bachelorette," had a strong premiere Wednesday night (see related story, this page).

Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's former West Coast president, said that targeting series candidates to specific time periods when they will be compatible with the shows around them makes sense and that networks can fall into a trap by simply picking shows they like. "More and more, that's a recipe for disaster," he said.

According to Ohlmeyer, reducing the number of series introduced in the fall is also prudent, given how crowded the television landscape has become, veering from the tradition of inundating viewers with new programs in the fall.

Some agents say it's often a mistake to try to anticipate precisely what networks are going to want.

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