‘Quality Wins’: TV Studio Chiefs on Navigating a Topsy-Turvy 2021 Pilot Season

·8-min read

The 2021 broadcast TV development cycle was unlike any other for the industry’s old-guard networks, and it wasn’t just because of pandemic-related disruptions.

This year marked the first time the springtime rituals of pilot season and upfronts week unfolded in network and studio operations that have been radically restructured to position programming, marketing and distribution operations for a future driven by mammoth streaming platforms.

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Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and to a lesser degree ViacomCBS have all undergone management overhauls during the past 18 months. Disney and NBCUniversal broke dramatically with long-standing tradition and reorganized TV and streaming operations to separate the functions of content creation and distribution. WarnerMedia moved to integrate Warner Bros., HBO and Turner more closely than ever before.

All of these moves have had the effect of centralizing programming and development operations. Content teams at Disney and NBCUniversal are tasked with hunting for intriguing properties that could be a good fit — and hopefully a huge hit — for any one or more of an array of linear and streaming options.

That’s a sea change for the creative community, which has been accustomed for decades to pitching projects on a targeted network-by-network basis to dedicated programming teams for each outlet.

Today, as traditional media heavyweights embrace direct-to-consumer streaming as the path to future growth, Hollywood’s largest studios are much more focused on supplying in-house streamers. It’s also clear from the blizzard of programming news announced over the past week that congloms will be experimenting with creative windowing of pricey shows across multiple outlets to get as much bang for their investment as possible.

Another trend was the portability of shows from networks to streaming platforms and vice versa. ViacomCBS was active on this front last week in sending CBS dramas “Evil” and “SEAL Team” to Paramount Plus.

David Stapf, president of CBS Studios, noted that this kind of flexibility came into play with a drama straight-to-series order “Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol” that his shop was producing for NBC but has now shifted to streamer Peacock. “They called us and said they had more of a need on Peacock,” Stapf told Variety. “That appealed to us because we love the show and we want it to flourish.”

ViacomCBS racked up eight new series orders over the week, all for CBS other than CW drama “The 4400.” The tally included two comedies and an unscripted series (“Come Dance With Me”).

“It’s been a gratifying year despite the bizarreness of it,” Stapf said.

The recent streamlining of content and distribution operations at Disney has been a welcome change, according to the leaders of Disney Television Studios banners 20th Television and ABC Signature. Disney TV Studios was the leading seller of new scripted series in this topsy-turvy year, when volume was down and COVID protocols complicated production. The banner ended upfront week with seven new series pickups — three comedies and four dramas — across ABC, Fox and NBC.

The benefits of the new structure have been immediately clear in the view of 20th TV president Karey Burke. Burke moved from her role as ABC Entertainment president in December to lead the studio as part of the larger operations shifts.

The new marching orders mean “getting rid of multiple layers of notes and partnering with our colleagues at the platforms to speak with one voice, when it comes to things like note-giving and casting,” Burke told Variety. “We really implemented that starting with the reorg in December. I can tell you, anecdotally, that it appears to be working, and we all have more time back in our day to do the things we should be doing, which is clearing a path to get great shows on the air.”

The more streamlined way of doing things circumvents the traditional pilot process, she said, in lieu of giving shows “the time to bake and get cast properly and not be in a foot race against each other in order to hit what is becoming increasingly arbitrary timelines.”

Jonnie Davis, president of ABC Signature, said the new mindset for Disney TV operations has helped them stay laser-focused on content priorities.

“We have less of a buyer-seller relationship with our networks. We’re real partners in the process. We target IP together,” Davis says. “It’s best for the artists. It’s changed the game for us and put us in a position of strength with our artists. We’re all rowing in the same direction.”

The primetime TV business has long been ruled by a strict calendar that dictated pilot season unfold between January and April in time for May upfront presentations. Those rules have been bending for some time as the TV universe has metastasized over the past decade, although the gravitational pull of pilot season still drives a lot of scheduling decisions for the creative community. But things are also loosening up as year-round development becomes the norm.

“Broadcast networks are not jamming their projects. They’re taking their time as well. The days of ‘deliver it by this date or you’re out of contention’ — those days are gone,” Davis says. “Quality wins.”

NBCUniversal came into development season with a newly configured management team led by the troika of Susan Rovner as chair of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming; Frances Berwick as chair of entertainment networks, and Pearlena Igbokwe, who was promoted to head all of NBCU’s TV production operations as chair of Universal Studio Group last September.

Igbokwe’s group flexed impressive muscle with the unprecedented score by producer Dick Wolf of landing nine shows to dominate three nights of primetime on two networks: NBC’s “Chicago” trilogy on Wednesday and a “Law & Order” stack on Thursday (including the latest incarnation, “Law & Order: For the Defense” alongside CBS’ Tuesday block of “FBI” dramas, including the newly ordered “FBI: International.”

Wolf’s largely procedural based dramas have been holding up much of broadcast primetime for years. The strategy behind the block scheduling is to give fans of his oeuvre the chance to binge out for a night or two or three.

“With Dick Wolf there’s a plan to everything,” Igbokwe said of the strategy behind the spinoffs. NBC’s success with stacking his three Chicago shows on Wednesdays was the springboard toward developing easily franchise-able shows.

“Stacking those shows together helps all of them,” she said. “That’s Dick’s foresight. He creates his own companion shows rather than waiting for the network to figure out what’s best to put around his shows; he just creates them himself.”

Universal overall had a strong selling season with six new scripted series across NBC and CBS and three unscripted newcomers for NBC.

Igbokwe expressed her enthusiasm for the creativity behind new comedies “American Auto” and “Grand Crew.” NBC’s decision to have a comedy-free fall lineup for the first time since the late 1940s made headlines, but Igbokwe said the midseason launch plan makes sense in such a crowded content universe. NBC will launch a new comedy block later in the season after using the winter Olympics and Super Bowl (it’s NBC’s turn next year) to promote shows that might get lost in the crush of the traditional fall premiere period.

“When they walked me through the plan for using these major events to help get millions of eyeballs to help promote and launch these shows, that to me said, ‘OK they are committed to comedy and want to give them the best chance for success,’ ” she said. She also noted that Universal is enjoying a freshman hit this year with Queen Latifah’s “The Equalizer,” which got a big send off from CBS behind this year’s Super Bowl.

Channing Dungey is another industry veteran who came into pilot season in a new role, segueing from Netflix to the helm of Warner Bros. TV Group in January. The studio landed six orders this week across three networks, with pending decisions to come on four pilots for CW (which will unveil its programming picks next week, in another break with upfront tradition).

The news of the WarnerMedia-Discovery transaction came as an industry-shaking surprise at the start of week, raising questions about how the studio will be affected under the new management regime led by Discovery chief David Zaslav.

For Dungey, the goalposts are clear. WBTV needs to supply significant programming firepower to HBO Max, HBO and other internal platforms as well as maintain its historic presence as a dominant supplier to the largest outside networks.

“The priority for us is to focus on our advantage of being an independent studio that sells in a meaningful way to third parties,” Dungey said. “That was one of the reasons why I was so excited about coming to Warner Bros.”

Dungey pointed to comedy “Abbott Elementary” at ABC as a win for the studio that earned a pickup after some down-to-the-wire negotiations. The workplace comedy set among teachers at a Philadelphia public school feels like a good fit with post-pandemic times. Finding the way for a major player like Warner Bros. to set co-productions with rivals like 20th Television is as much a part of the job as advocating for the shows her team believes in.

“There’s no longer a one-size-fits all model for us. There was a little bit of ‘We’re Warner Bros. This is how we do it,’ ” she said. “One of the things I’m bringing to the table is a willingness to be nimble and figure it out.”

Dungey’s first impressions off the Discovery-WarnerMedia deal are good: “I feel like this merger provides us more opportunity to focus on what we do best: Create incredible television. I’m looking forward to the future with positivity.”

(Pictured: “Abbott Elementary,” a workplace comedy produced by Warner Bros. TV and 20th Television for ABC)

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