There's been a lot of news in PilotLand in the past few weeks, and some of it is actually worth mentioning because the networks are taking another stab at genre and shows that don't fit so neatly into the cop/lawyer/doctor box. So far, we've gotten Flash Forward (David Goyer and Brannon Braga for ABC, based on Robert Sawyer's novel), a re-boot of V (Scott Peters for ABC), The Gates (Richard Hatem for ABC), The Return (Rene Echevarria for ABC), Happy Town (Andre Nemec & Josh Applebaum for ABC), Witches of Eastwick (Maggie Friedman for ABC, based on John Updike's novel), Human Target (Jon Steinberg for Fox, based on the comic book by Peter Milligan), Masterwork (Paul Scheuring for Fox, based on every pitch that everybody I know has ever had rejected by a network because they did not create Prison Break), Reincarnationist (David Hudgins for Fox), Virtuality (Ron Moore & Mike Taylor for Fox), Day One (Jesse Alexander for NBC).
These all sound promising to me, and only three of them are ideas that we've pitched before. But really, that's to be expected. I know it can get depressing when you're working your ass off on something, a pitch or a script, and then some asshat swoops in and sells the very same idea. I don't think I'd be as bitter about Heroes if the show that's on right now was actually good.
But let's look at it in all seriousness. Masterwork, for example, the Paul Scheuring pilot for Fox, which is about people who travel the world and collect artifacts. We pitch this show every year, and we're not the only ones. But if you're a Fox executive and Paul Scheuring and Jane Writer pitch the same idea, who do you buy it from? Jane, who's never gotten a pilot shot no matter how much staff experience she has, or Paul, who had a show on the air on your same network? The choice is clear. And the executives can't really be taken to task for that. It would be wonderful if the idea were the only thing that mattered, but that's not how it works. Of course a network's going to buy from people who've produced for them.
Besides, you have to look at the bright side. If there's the slightest chance of a staff job on the show, we've got two perfect samples. Because yes, we sold this show already. Bright side, people! It exists!!!
What's most interesting is that two of the ABC pilots -- V and Happy Town -- were written on spec. I don't know if Scott Peters has an ABC deal, but Applebaum and Nemec do, and they wrote their pilot on spec. Very interesting. There's something I like about networks buying spec material, and also about writers believing so much in their idea that they'll write a script to prove the veracity of said idea. It's also selfishness on my part. I'd rather write a pilot than pitch one. We'll see what happens with all of these pilots. I'm certainly looking forward to reading them.
Just like almost all movies are remakes, TV show reboots or based on previously existing material, so is the way of TeeVee. This year we have remakes (V, Streets of San Francisco & Hawaii 5-0, Parenthood), pilots based on existing material (Witches of Eastwick, Flash Forward, Human Target) and spinoffs (Gossip Girl and NCIS). Honestly, based on what I've heard so far about the pilots, I don't find these any more inventive or promising than the original ideas. The Gates, for example, which is a slightly supernatural take on a suburban neighborhood, is a terrific idea, and it comes from Richard Hatem, who created Miracles. If you didn't see the pilot, it's one of the best pilots ever made. And Happy Town, which is a small-town mystery, sounds promising as well. The genre ideas, like The Return and Virtuality, are very cool ideas. And Masterwork goes without saying.
It's obvious that the networks would rather buy what they see as "proven" ideas. But just because an idea already exists, does that mean it's been proven? In another medium, maybe, but as we've seen (Knight Rider, Bionic Woman, etc), that's no sure path to success.
There are also two shows set in the 80s -- the Gossip Girl spinoff (Lily Van Der Woodsen as a teen having to go to public school in the Valley -- for the love of Cobra Kai, please let it be Reseda. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!) and Lost in the 80s. And lemme just say, there better be credit for bona-fides on these two. I don't want to get beaten out for a staff job by some kid who wasn't even born when Star Wars was in the theater.
So. Fox seems to know what works for them, and ABC's in the position of being able to try some shit out. CBS has ordered the same old thing which I kind of appreciate, because whenever CBS tries anything different, a faerie dies. With NBC, however, well... we all know what's going on over there. Reported stress between Silverman and Angela Bromstad, the mass firings, and their drama pilots, which go David Kelley-Dick Wolf-medical-medical, etc. What's hilarious is this:
NBC's solution? Bring in the branding guys. The network's president of entertainment marketing, Adam Stotsky (who'd previously dealt with a similar problem at the SciFi Channel), has spearheaded a new initiative that has brought in outside consultants Naked Communications to decide what kind of channel NBC will become.
Now, maybe that makes sense. NBC has turned into Must-Skip TV. And it's not like they can pinpoint exactly who was hired when that started to happen. What? They can? Oh. Anyway, the point remains that NBC is no longer a brand. So they would have to hand money over to a company that knows how to turn nothing into something. After all, this company was able to help brand the Sci-Fi Channel. And what a trial that must've been. The Sci-Fi Channel. The SCIENCE FICTION Channel needed help BRANDING itself. SERIOUSLY?!?!?
I think I'm going to start a branding company.
But wait. There's more.
And they're not just talking about advertising, as Stotsky explains:
"There's an inextricable link between marketing and programming... These two things define the brand. We're all aligned against the same goals."
Specifically, Stotsky went on to say, what Naked defines as the NBC brand will help executives decide on what pilots and series to greenlight for next fall and beyond...
Can you really brand something that doesn't exist? You can't call it Must-See TV if every show you have on is execrable. But I get it. They're looking for a formula. What they really want is to not be held responsible for the pilots they shoot and the shows they order. They want an admittedly expensive fall guy. "Hey, we paid this branding company millions. It's not our fault our shows fail." Here's how I see it. ABC was in free-fall a few years back, so they took chances. Here came Lost, and Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives. And suddenly, presto-chango, ABC had a BRAND. In other words, the shows they had on were shows people wanted to watch. THEN you can brand your network. But shit, get some product first!
Of course, it's a little more complicated than that. A crucial element to any network schedule is the ability to cross-promote, which means being able to promote your shows all week, to a receptive audience. If you have a hit show, for example, you can promote lesser-watched shows during that hit show. While you can promote a comedy during a crime show, the audiences for both are probably going to be quite a bit different. What that means is, you're wasting your time. This is why CBS's shows are generally hits. They can promote Cold Case during Criminal Minds, The Mentalist and CSI. Because CSI's such a whomping big hit, they can promote their whole schedule during CSI.
This was always a huge issue with UPN, because the network wound up having three different audiences. When we were on Haunted, the only show during which you could really promote Haunted was Buffy, which was on before Haunted. Like, right before. The rest of the week was a wasteland for promotion. People weren't reminded, so they didn't watch. Millennium had a similar problem. It was on Friday, and the only show during which it could be promoted was X-Files, on Sunday. So the show went almost a whole week without promotion. It was isolated on the schedule. I see Fox rectifying this a bit, and although it looks like they're dumping Sarah Connor and Dollhouse on Friday, Sarah Connor's a quality show and Dollhouse has the highest profile of any new midseason show. So until I see otherwise, I think Fox is trying to regain Friday. If they can do that, they're going to be able to do a lot more promotion. Although genre, both shows can still be promoted during 24, Lie To Me, Bones and especially Fringe. And Fox promotes everything during American Idol. That's almost an entire week of promotion. I do wish they'd take another runner at Sunday, though. I think they're in a good position to do so.
Maybe DVRs are changing the idea of cross-promotion, but I don't see the networks taking advantage of it. And maybe the Internet is changing it too, but the networks don't yet seem to be grasping the importance of the Internet. It's one thing to have a website for the show, but it's entirely something different to do the research and find out which Internet audiences should be targeted for promotion. This seems like a no-brainer to me, and maybe networks are doing it, but I'm not seeing it.
Yes, it's another fucking long post, but I'm making up for last week. Comments next time!
np - The Boxer Rebellion, "Union"