Network schedules still uncertain

But two of the big US nets have confirmed they'll be staging upfronts.

The WGA pickets are down, and production on popular American TV series has restarted for delivery ahead of the May sweeps. Now the bets are on as to whether the US networks will radically change how they develop and launch prime-time shows – as intimated during the WGA strike – or whether they’ll settle back into their usual rhythms.

Canadian broadcasters have much riding on the outcome in Hollywood, as they traditionally swing behind US network prime-time schedules.

‘The next couple of weeks will be interesting in terms of the next steps, whether there will be upfronts and whether there will be pilots,’ says Susanne Boyce, CTV’s president of creative, content and channels.

On the upfronts, the US networks, with the exception of NBC, insist they will hold their traditional dog-and-pony shows in mid-May, though likely with less expense and splash. That should ensure that Canadian broadcasters will attend the Los Angeles screenings to wheel and deal with the major Hollywood program suppliers for rookie and returning US shows.

‘[Studios] see the value of us programmers seeing the full episode and meeting with the head writer and producer, and getting a real sense of where a show is going,’ says Don Gaudet, GM of programming at Toronto-based Sun TV.

But the pilot season has already been clipped due to fewer scripts delivered during the recent WGA strike. And the US networks will launch more new scripted series straight-to-air without a pilot episode. The fact that pilot episodes were already paid for by other than the US networks were attractive features for CBS and NBC when they bought the Canadian drama series Flashpoint and The Listener.

What’s more, not all new scripted series picked up by the US networks will get full-season orders. Gaudet says whether the American nets order 12 episodes or only six to hedge their bets will be weighed by the Canadians when they shop at the screenings.

Of course, the US networks staggering bows for rookie series, rather than launching 30 new shows in September, will impact the CBC, which has had success rolling out its new series in January, when the US nets traditionally take a breather. ‘I’d be curious to see when [US networks] start the new programming up,’ says Kirstine Layfield, CBC executive director of network programming. ‘We tend to launch in off-prime months, and are curious on whether they also push ahead launch dates.’

How CBS and NBC position Flashpoint and The Listener, and whether they ultimately deliver audiences, will offer clues on whether the recent Canadian drama purchases were heat-of-the-moment buys during a fractious labour dispute, or a harbinger of US networks increasingly looking beyond Los Angeles for fresh ideas and financing for new scripted shows.

‘If one of the shows does work post-strike, the networks will say we can achieve our goals beyond the traditional pilot development process,’ says John Morayniss, the LA-based chairman and CEO of Blueprint Entertainment. He foresees the prospect of hedge funds and other financiers being more willing to underwrite slates of TV shows – just as they do already with feature film slates – to offset the inherent risk of network TV development. ‘More players, from the financial community to agents and broadcasters, are willing to explore an independent model for US network TV like they never have before.’

From Playback Daily