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TV pilots, a big employer in L.A., are in limbo. How the coronavirus could change the industry

Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik in "The Big Bang Theory."
Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik, on “The Big Bang Theory,” are producing a new series for Fox, “Call Me Kat,” starring Bialik.
(Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

This year’s batch of TV pilots included some ominous names: “Triage,” “Wreckage” and “Housebroken.”

Now, those show titles also describe network TV’s pilot season, which has been upended by the coronavirus outbreak.

Broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW were gearing up to employ thousands of workers in Los Angeles; Vancouver, Canada; New York and beyond when film and TV production shut down two weeks ago.

Opportunities vanished overnight. For some, the work stoppage came just days after being hired onto a pilot, the industry term for the initial episode of a proposed series.

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Pilot season, which typically runs from late February to early May, injects an estimated $500 million in annual spending into the entertainment economy, which also boosts small firms such as prop houses and catering firms that provide support.

The disruption of pilot season underscores the rippling economic effects of the health crisis. Some industry veterans are predicting that pilot season, as we know it, may never be the same, especially if network executives discover they can live without the compressed window of production — a mad dash to find the next big hit.

“I suspect that we’ll look back on this event and say: ‘That was the tipping point,’ " said producer Warren Littlefield, who ran NBC Entertainment during its 1990s heyday. “All the walls have been crumbling, and this is the final blast.”

Pilot season has long been television’s petri dish. The custom began in the early 1960s to bring big advertising dollars to prime-time TV. A decade ago, the five broadcast networks combined would order nearly 100 pilots in February and early March, then task writer-producers with delivering their episodes in less than six weeks.

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But as network TV’s dominance waned, executives have increasingly bought shows out of season. They didn’t want to lose another big-named writer-producer or prominent actor to a project for a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, which are not hemmed in by the seasonal rhythms of network TV.

This year, the five broadcast networks had ordered 56 television pilots. ABC picked up its last pilot March 9, one week before the production shutdown. Only one pilot, “B Positive,” for CBS from prolific producer Chuck Lorre (“The Big Bang Theory”) and writer Marco Pennette (“Mom”), had finished shooting before production halted. Now, the other 55 pilots are in limbo.

“I suspect that we’ll look back on this event and say: ‘That was the tipping point.’”
Producer Warren Littlefield

Carla Banks Waddles, a writer and producer of “Good Girls” on NBC, was two weeks away from shooting a pilot she wrote for NBC called “At that Age,” which explores an African American family’s legacy in Harlem.

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“We were in New York, location scouting and having daily meetings with key departments who were all ramping up to shoot,” Waddles wrote in an email. Then came the order to shut down.

“I’m still in contact with the other producers to make any decisions we can, having story meetings, music meetings, minor casting and creative discussions, etc.,” Waddles said. “Anything to keep the train moving forward.”

Producers and studio executives say it is doubtful that full-scale TV production could resume before June or July. Several network executives predicted that new scripted shows might not be ready to air until November or January, delivering another blow to broadcasters, which have been steadily losing audiences to streaming services, video games and other TV outlets.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to upend business across the country, what will it take to get Hollywood back to work?
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Viewers might not see a flurry of new scripted shows in late September, as is the tradition. Instead, several network executives said the September-through-May television season may become a thing of the past, with networks shifting to a calendar year by staging premiere week in January.

Executives said they intend to keep many of the pilots alive, particularly those that have received a series commitment. In addition, networks in the last week have asked show producers to submit scripts for a possible second episode so they can better evaluate a show’s prospects in such a tumultuous climate.

One veteran TV producer, who asked not to be identified, said he considered second scripts as an “audition,” so network executives can narrow the field without shooting any video, thus saving time and millions of dollars.

Waddles, the writer-producer for NBC, said she welcomed the request for an additional script, which she called “a great show of support and a way for everyone to stay engaged during uncertain downtime. And it puts us that much further ahead to have a second episode ready to go later.”

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Network executives said the situation will be in flux as long as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

“Everything has been disrupted. We don’t have enough information at the moment to make decisions,” said one senior network executive who was not authorized to comment. An executive at another network said: “There’s no playbook for how you work through a pandemic.”

This much is clear: TV production, a major source of employment in the Los Angeles region, will fall well short of last season. Broadcast networks, cable channels and digital platforms produced 196 new scripted dramas and comedies from June 2018 through May 2019, according to an analysis by FilmLA. (There were a total of 465 live action scripted shows last season, FilmLA said).

Author Michael Connelly, center, on the set of "Bosch" with two crew members in 2018.
Author Michael Connelly, center, on the set of “Bosch” in the San Fernando Valley on Oct. 16, 2018.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Of the new shows, 67 aired on a broadcast network; 53 were on a cable channel, and 76 were featured on a streaming service (up from 41 new streaming shows the year before). Last year marked the first time that streaming companies ordered more programs than cable channels or broadcast networks.

Even before the pandemic, broadcast networks already were cutting back. Last year’s broadcast orders represented a 12% decline from the previous season, when the big networks bought 76 new dramas and comedies, according to FilmLA.

“This was a trend that was already gaining momentum,” said Gary Newman, former co-chief executive of the Fox network and TV studio. “Now that trend will probably speed up.”

Ordering a show “straight-to-series,” without commissioning a pilot, has been gaining favor as the networks face fierce competition.

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Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ typically order a full season of episodes without making a pilot. So the broadcast networks increasingly have made similar deals to remain competitive. They want to be welcoming to top producers seeking a home for their projects, even if it means taking a leap of faith without first reviewing a pilot.

For example, in this year’s crop of pilots are at least eight straight-to-series orders, including a proposed ABC drama, “The Big Sky,” a Montana detective mystery from producer David E. Kelley. Fox made a straight-to-series order for “Call Me Kat,” a comedy featuring Mayim Bialik, a fan favorite from “The Big Bang Theory.” The show is co-produced by Jim Parsons, her former costar.

In the past, networks sparingly made series orders because of the high cost of gearing up a production, building sets and hiring a large cast and crew for an unproven concept. What if the jokes fall flat? What if the cast lacks on-screen chemistry? Networks preferred to shoot a pilot that could be screened for test audiences and pitched to advertisers.

Pilot season has long been a spring affair because networks needed it to mass-produce new shows to promote to advertisers in lavish presentations in mid-May. Those presentations, in New York City at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, kick off frenetic negotiations known as the upfront market.

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That’s when advertisers scramble to buy commitments for commercial time in shows that will run in the upcoming season. The calendar was established some 60 years ago when TV networks bowed to Detroit automakers, who wanted to promote new models arriving in show rooms in late September. And the season stuck.

“The upfront process may seem anachronistic, but it’s a functioning market that brings in around $7 billion in advertising commitments in just a few weeks,” Newman said. “It would be chaos if you were to lose that process.”

Television historian Tim Brooks agreed. “The upfront is the economic pillar that supports broadcast networks, and cable networks too. I would not be too quick to put it in its grave.”

Earlier this month, the networks canceled the May upfront presentations because of the coronavirus. There were health concerns about drawing together thousands of people. In addition, without pilots, the networks won’t have clips to show advertisers.

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Now the fear is whether the health crisis will topple the larger economy into a recession, which would then strain advertisers’ budgets.

The challenge for networks is to figure out how to keep the dollars flowing without the pilots and upfront presentations in large venues.

Producers say the shutdown might breathe new life into shows that have been drawing mediocre ratings. For example, CBS’ “Carol’s Second Act,” which stars Patricia Heaton as a middle-age woman becoming a medical intern, could be brought back for a second season.

“Shows that were ‘on the bubble’ might get renewed,” said veteran producer Gail Katz, who helped make “The Perfect Storm,” and “Air Force One.” “Networks will consider them a safer bet because they already have a cast, crew and a writers’ room assembled — and an audience.”

Katz has experience with catastrophic events: She was a producer on the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, about a rapidly spreading deadly virus. Now, that film is suddenly in demand. But another of her past projects, the ABC comedy-drama “Cashmere Mafia,” debuted during the bitter Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08. Only a handful of episodes were produced, and the show was quickly canceled.

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“So much depends on how long this whole thing lasts,” Katz said. “And it feels like a lot of things could be done online, without driving all over Los Angeles, because we are already doing so many things online.

“But one question is, what will people want to see after this?” she said. “Will they want comfort food, escapism, feel-good programs, comedies or more medical dramas?”


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