Pitch is in, but how will it play?

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.

"We tell our clients, 'Come up with great ideas -- shows that you want to watch,' " said Aaron Kaplan, senior vice president and co-head of network television at the William Morris Agency. "There's real estate for great scripts."

Industry sources say a few modest signposts have already emerged from the hundreds of candidates under consideration.

As usual, the programs currently succeeding help dictate what the networks put into the creative pipeline, with an emphasis on escapism -- including blue-sky shows in such exotic locales as Hawaii -- futuristic settings and procedural crime-busting that emulates CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and NBC's "Law & Order" franchises.

If all goes well, in fact, there won't have been this much crime in Hawaii since Steve McGarrett and the "Hawaii Five-O" team were retired in 1980.

ABC's development roster includes "Honolulu M.C.U." (the initials stand for "major crime unit"), as well as a cop show set in Alaska. Fox has its own Honolulu cop project, and CBS could put on a show about a divorced couple solving crimes in Palm Springs.

Inevitably, some of the most interesting pilots -- at least based on a one-line pitch -- never see the light of day. Then again, thumbnail descriptions, executives caution, are seldom as important as execution. Cop shows are all the rage now, thanks largely to "CSI," but the similarly themed "Missing Persons" and "Bodies of Evidence" each fizzled in the early 1990s, despite a young actor named George Clooney in the latter.

Many producers grumble that the system mitigates against risk-taking formats and storytelling, which have a hard time surviving the sifting process. There are exceptions, however, such as NBC's first-year crime drama "Boomtown," whose episodes unfold out of sequence and from the perspective of multiple characters.

Remembering how he pitched the show, series creator Graham Yost -- whose credits include writing the feature "Speed" -- said, "I talked incredibly fast, but coherently, for about 10 minutes. You're playing to those little imperceptible nods.... Because I did some acting in college, you can feel if you have the crowd or not, and I could tell they were intrigued."

Beyond "Mr. and Mr. Nash," which counts comic actor Steve Martin among its producers, another rare concept featuring a gay couple is the tentatively titled "Bob, Carol, Ted and Alex," a comedy about a divorced man and woman -- both with new husbands -- raising their kids together. An NBC comedy, meanwhile, could strike close to home for TV executives, exploring the world of L.A. nannies.

As for the future, "Homicide: Life on the Street" creator Paul Attanasio is behind a CBS pilot about lawyers in 2050, and producer Steven Bochco -- of "NYPD Blue" renown -- is working on a Fox cop show set in 2069. The WB is also collaborating with "West Wing" director-producer Thomas Schlamme on a novel premise focusing on a present-day teenager who will become president of the United States in 2032.

There are plenty of new twists on old themes as well. In "Skin," the boy's family works in the adult-film industry, and the girl's is headed by the district attorney investigating it. Faring well with the teenage Superman series "Smallville," the WB might revive Tarzan -- only this time in the modern-day jungle of New York City. ABC also has several series candidates adapted from feature films, including a prequel to "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion."

How many prototypes actually get on remains to be seen, but Warner Bros.' Roth maintains that the cream ultimately rises to the top. "Good shows make it on the schedule, and bad shows don't," he said. "The tricky thing is the many shows that are deemed to be marginal."

Still, another thorny question sure to be closely watched this year involves networks favoring programs they produce, hoping to reap profits in perpetuity from owning the next "Seinfeld" or "Home Improvement." In 2002, ABC bought 90% of its pilots from its parent, the Walt Disney Co., admitting later that that may have amounted to a "synergy" overdose.

Because of such practices, the ideal of series making the cut based solely on merit can fall by the wayside.

"No one's trying to be fair," said Sandra Ortiz, executive director of USC's Center for Communication Law and Policy and a former Fox executive. "The business aspects are at least as important as the creative aspects.... The problem is they're hiding behind the smokescreen of holding the creative process as paramount."

Second-guessing motives is difficult, however, because developing hits is far from an exact science. When CBS finalized its 2000 prime-time lineup, "CSI" was the last series chosen, receiving such an undesirable time slot that the studio co-financing the show, Disney's Touchstone Television, withdrew before the premiere. The drama about forensic crime-solvers is now TV's most-watched program.

Although producers try to identify programming trends, they're frequently hard to discern until schedules are locked in. It's often only after the fact, with so many projects in circulation, "you realize five people developed the same show," said Bob Greenblatt, whose company produces HBO's "Six Feet Under."

Consider this season's "Do Over" and "That Was Then" on the WB and ABC, respectively, new shows that each dealt with grown men traveling back in time to reexperience high school. The programs even contained near-identical scenes in which the protagonist had to relive publicly addressing the student body.

Underscoring prime time's long odds, they now have something else in common: "That Was Then" was canceled, and "Do Over" benched temporarily, both due to low ratings.

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