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Company Town : NBC Trying a New Path in Pursuit of Prime-Time Hits

Every year, the television networks spend about $150 million each in search of the next big prime-time hit, a ritual euphemistically called “the development process.” The system--if it can be considered that--is as obscure and secret as the burial customs of ancient Egypt.

Now, in an effort to find a less costly way to develop programs, NBC has abolished the decades-old structure of making separate executives responsible for comedy and drama and instead has assigned them to “teams” covering Hollywood’s studios. This way, argues NBC, the executives can remain with a project “from pitch to production.”

But when it comes to changing the way business is done, Hollywood is notoriously conservative: The old way is the best way. Indeed, many producers, agents and writers think NBC is attacking the most sacrosanct of Hollywood institutions: The Relationship.

“Everyone thinks it’s a total joke,” gripes one successful agent who does not want to speak on the record because he earns handsome commissions from NBC shows. “It’s hard enough for someone to get to know all the comedy writers in town, let alone drama.”

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It is the relationship between a producer and the network executive--cultivated over years of sharing large bottles of Pellegrino and demitasse servings of espresso--that can nurture, shepherd and groom a TV show through the labyrinth of the development process.

At the same time, the old system is something of an old boy’s network rife with favoritism: innovative program ideas get tabled in favor of pet projects between a producer and network executive. Not surprisingly, doing away with those baser elements is exactly what NBC has in mind.

“There’s a lot of ‘round up the usual suspects’ ” in program development, says Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC West Coast. “When you have a tight funnel there are only so many relationships you can have. . . . All we’re trying to do is widen the funnel.”

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Traditionally, network programming executives have either worked in the “current” department, overseeing series already on the air, or in “development,” working to bring out new shows.

The departments are further subdivided between comedy and drama, with, for example, the comedy development executive handing the show off to his or her counterpart in the “current” department when the show becomes a series. This system is still in effect at ABC, CBS and Fox.

Under NBC’s new setup, the programming executive will be on one of four teams and responsible for sticking with a project from conception through the various stages of development, script, pilot and series. Of course, the chances of going to the next stage diminish every step of the way.

Ohlmeyer says the idea of abolishing the traditional structure for program development originally came from an MBA intern who was working at the network’s Burbank programming office. NBC Entertainment President Warren “Littlefield and I had been thinking about changing the way we do business for some time,” he explains.

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To people on the outside--or virtually everyone in the world, save for a couple of hundred people--the slow, cumbersome and costly development system ultimately produces just more shopworn sitcoms and police dramas.

“The development process as we know it is hardly perfect, and the failure rate is way too high,” says Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. TV, which produces such series as “Murphy Brown,” and “Sisters.” He concedes, “We are a terribly traditional community.”

It’s said that a dozen writer-producers in television produce 80% of the networks’ prime-time schedule. While the figure may fluctuate from season to season, the networks do rely on the same handful of “creative” talent to develop new shows--like the production teams of Miller-Boyet, Witt-Thomas-Harris and Charles-Burrows-Charles, not to mention heavyweight producers like James Brooks or Steve Bochco, who have their own series commitments.

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The problem, says Ohlmeyer, is that not enough ideas are coming into the network’s development hopper from a variety of sources. By opening up the hunt for new shows beyond the small squad of elite development executives, “we’ll get more diversity,” he believes.

Most network programming executives have never actually produced a TV show. That is not the case at the BBC in Britain.

“A BBC executive understands program budgets, knows how to physically produce a show,” says Alan Berger, head of the TV department at International Creative Management. “There are not many American programming executives who have done that. . . . It’s like having an editor who was not a reporter first.”

Well, at least we can assure our readers that never happens. . . .

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