By Peter White, Nellie Andreeva
February 17, 2023
It’s pilot season, right? In the old world order, by mid-February, the broadcast networks would have whittled hundreds of pitches and dozens of scripts down to between 10 and 20 comedy and drama pilots each for the Big 4 and about half dozen for the CW.
Pilot Season 2023 is hitting another historic low with 13 pilot orders across ABC, CBS and NBC and none at Fox, which is going script-to-series, or the CW, which is eyeing up co-productions and modestly budgeted scripted originals as well as a bigger unscripted slate under its new owners.
“It’s just so light,” one industry observer exclaimed about this year’s volume, which could go up but only slightly.
As to why the numbers are so low, “it feels like network executives weren’t given a lot of money to spend, and whatever they have on the air is kind of working, so there isn’t much real estate,” an industry source said.
Indeed, declining linear ratings have put pressure on broadcast budgets. Across-the-board viewership erosion notwithstanding, established series have been chugging along, and the new broadcast additions this season have mostly worked, including CBS’ Fire Country and So Help Me Todd, and NBC’s Quantum Leap and Night Court, which already have been renewed for a second season, ABC’s The Rookie: Feds and Fox’s Accused.
Comedy’s retreat, which started a couple of years ago with fewer comedy blocks on the broadcast schedule, continues with only five comedy pilots total ordered, which is somewhat surprising given last season’s success of new single-camera half-hours Abbott Elementary and Ghosts and this season’s solid start for multi-cams Night Court and Lopez vs. Lopez. Procedurals once again rule most of the drama orders.
Even before the pandemic drove a bus through the way things were done, the number of pilots ordered during the traditional January-May window had been trending down from the high of 100+ a decade ago. The 2020 pilot season pickups, made on the eve of the pandemic, had set a new low volume mark with a little over 60 pilots across the five broadcast networks after ABC and Fox had announced a shift to year-round development and pilot production.
When pilot season returned in 2022, just over 30 pilots were ordered, roughly half of the pilots commissioned in 2020. This year, the number went down another 50%. Meanwhile, the number of pilots greenlighted outside of the regular pilot cycle and broadcast projects that go through a writers room for straight-to-series consideration has been on the rise.
This year, both CBS and NBC ordered two drama pilots each as well as two writers rooms for hourlong projects they would go straight-to-series on in success.
There’s a variety of names used for the new system: off-cycle, two-track, and year-round development are essentially interchangeable terms for how the broadcast networks are looking to fill their fall, and increasingly, midseason schedules.
There are obvious pros and cons. Under the old system, network chiefs knew exactly when contracts expired and when shows needed to be picked up by. “Now, it’s so messy to keep track of,” one broadcast network chief told Deadline. “Back in the day, we were definitely settling on people… having more time to cast properly is a real positive.”
With a fraction of the customary pilot volume yielding so many promising new series this season, one could see why the networks would want to continue to push down the number of pilots in the traditional cycle. A looming writers strike is further complicating things.
If there is a work stoppage in May, when pilots are being picked up to series, these shows may not be ready for fall, which could also explain the networks’ hesitance to do many pilots now for fall consideration. Meanwhile, renewing existing series early would allow them to start working on scripts for next season so they can deliver fresh episodes for fall even if there is a strike. (Writers rooms for potential new series also would bank scripts that can be used if the network picks up the show, strike or no strike.)
In addition to freshmen Night Court, Quantum Leap, Fire Country and So Help Me Todd, already renewed for next season are ABC and CBS’ sophomore comedy hits Abbott Elementary and Ghosts, respectively, Fox’s The Cleaning Lady (plus the network’s animated stalwarts), as well as NBC’s La Brea for a third and final season, which is envisioned as strike contingency. More early renewals are expected in the coming weeks.
Additionally, several new drama and comedy series that could’ve premiered this midseason, including CBS’ The Never Game and NBC’s Found, are being held for fall.
With networks preparing for a potential strike, there will undoubtedly be some more room for reality television but it won’t be quite the same as 2007/08. The majority of these companies have deeper libraries and could potentially run shows from their streaming services the way CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery found its way to CBS’ fall 2020 schedule when all production had been shut down by the pandemic. You could imagine Peacock’s Poker Face getting an NBC airing if needed, ABC scheduling a Hulu or Disney+ series, or CBS taking a show from Paramount+ or elsewhere in the Paramount Global universe.
Below, Deadline explores how things stand at each of the broadcast networks, which pilots have been ordered for the 2023/24 season and what else is to come on the pilot and series renewal front.
ABC has the most drama pilots this season, the Untitled Drew Goddard project and The Good Lawyer planted spinoff of The Good Doctor, which were picked up in the fall, as well as The Hurt Unit and Judgement. The lone comedy pilot to date is the single-camera Public Defenders. That likely will be it for upfront consideration and potential spot on the fall schedule but there could be other orders between now and May. As Deadline reported earlier this month, Tim Allen has been exploring another family sitcom, possibly playing a grandfather, through 20th Television. Sibling network ABC, where his previous two sitcoms, Home Improvement and Last Man Standing originated, could be a suitable home for it.
As part of ABC’s push into year-round development through “second cycle”, the network has been focusing on making pilots for fall during pilot season and then ordering a couple of additional pilots in a second cycle during summer or fall targeted for midseason.
So far, ABC has only renewed its acclaimed sophomore comedy series Abbott Elementary for next season. More renewals are coming, with the network’s top series expected to return, including Grey’s Anatomy, which still needs to make new deals with several long-time cast members whose contracts are up at the end of the season. The medical juggernaut is headed to one of its biggest creative overhauls, with both the lead from Day 1, Ellen Pompeo, and longtime showrunner, Krista Vernoff, leaving. (Pompeo could be coming back for guest appearances.)
With the Grey’s Anatomy-Station 19 and The Rookie-The Rookie: Feds blocks working well, it is a safe bet that ABC would aim at bringing them back next season, along with the other veteran medical drama, The Good Doctor, possibly paired with its proposed spinoff, The Good Lawyer.
Of ABC’s freshman class, only two series premiered in the fall, The Rookie: Feds, which is considered a shoe-in for renewal, and Alaska Daily, which is heavily on the bubble and may not continue despite a promising start. Three series are just now launching, Will Trent, whose premiere is believed to have delivered strong numbers in multi-platform viewing, the Gina Rodriguez comedy Not Dead Yet and Milo Ventimiglia’s This Is Us followup, The Company You Keep.
Continuing a trend of the last couple of years, both of the CBS’ dramas pilots are based on IP and come from established auspices — Robert and Michelle King’s Elsbeth, a police procedural offshoot of the Kings’ The Good Wife/Good Fight universe, and Matlock, a gender-swap reboot of the classic legal drama, from Jennie Snyder Urman and Eric Christian Olsen. Also based on existing IP is one of CBS’ two comedy pilots, JumpStart, an adaptation of the comic strip.
With casting being one of the most challenging tasks to complete within the tight time frame and pressure cooker of pilot season, CBS opted to go for projects with big-names already attached, Kathy Bates (Matlock), Carrie Preston (Elsbeth) and Damon Wayans and Damon Wayans Jr. in CBS’ second comedy pilot, an untitled father-son sitcom.
Despite its recent success with single-camera comedies Young Sheldon and Ghosts, CBS is sticking to its rooted-in-tradition sitcom brand with both of its 2023 pilots being multi-camera. Additionally, after shifting to mostly presentations on the comedy side last year, the network is returning to full-size pilots for both JumpStart and Wayans Father-Son project.
CBS is making up the reduction in drama pilots orders this year with writers rooms for two medical projects — The Pact and Watson, which also is based on a popular IP, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes sidekick character. They have been put on a different track for potential straight-to-series orders targeting the following 2024-2025 season as CBS continues to employ the model, adopted largely by necessity during the pandemic, alongside standard pilots.
The network is ahead of the rest of the field on renewal decisions this year. It has five of its most popular scripted shows already picked up for next season as part of multi-season renewals, the three FBI dramas, The Equalizer and Young Sheldon. Add to that the recent renewals for Ghosts, The Neighborhood, Bob Hearts Abishola, Fire Country and So Help Me Todd and the announcement that NCIS: Los Angeles will be coming to an end, and CBS will not have a ton of tough calls to make in May. Most of its lineup is expected to return next season. However, as is often the case with successful, long-running series, there are some difficult renewal negotiations underway. And, despite not scoring a renewal alongside its fellow freshmen, East New York also has a chance of continuing. Its chances may be influenced by how strong the upcoming True Lies will come out the gate.
While some of the broadcast networks have pivoted back to a more traditional pipeline, albeit with two tracks, after moving towards an off-cycle development process during the pandemic, Fox has stuck to its script-to-series model.
And as the network begins to figure out what its fall and midseason 2023/24 schedule will look like, it essentially will not be piloting any new projects in the traditional sense.
On the comedy side, there’s a handful of projects in development that will likely be put through the script-to-series model, where the network orders backup material and more scripts before potentially handing out a series order.
There’s Rock Camp from The Goldbergs co-exec producer Steve Basilone, Miami-set multi-cam comedy El Patio and Buffalo Tens from Riki Lindhome and Natasha Leggero. A Patricia Heaton project that already has a script-to-series commitment just tapped comedy veterans Carol Leifer and Andy Gordon as writers.
Michael Thorn, President of Entertainment at Fox, told Deadline, “There’s not a one size fits all process in terms of how many scripts [we’ll do] but we will absolutely move a few comedies to that next stage for us to put in consideration, most likely for midseason.”
The network just launched Animal Control, starring Joel McHale. Cindy Snow, the Steve Yockey-penned project, that was originally intended for Animal Control‘s midseason slot, had been talked up as a potential for next season and Thorn said that he “wouldn’t rule that out”.
There are question marks as to whether both Call Me Kat and Welcome To Flatch would return for fourth and third seasons respectively. The former is considered likelier than the latter.
Of Fox’s two midseason dramas, Alert: Missing Persons Unit and Accused, Howard Gordon’s crime drama Accused has performed well and was the most-watched broadcast debut since the premiere of NBC’s Law & Order: Organized Crime in April 2021, so that will likely be back.
Alert hasn’t hit Accused numbers, but Thorn said it was a “solid performer” and is “encouraged” by delayed viewing so could still return.
Fox is now prepping some new developments for midseason 2024 consideration, including a new procedural from The Resident’s Amy Holden Jones and Burn Notice’s Matt Nix and a medical drama, based on Italian scripted format Doc.
Monarch ending after one season will give the network some space to fill and there has been speculation that The Resident may end with its sixth season, although Thorn said that he hadn’t made a decision yet.
There’s a number of drama projects that could fill any shelf space including The Bomb Maker from Carol Mendelsohn, Jenny Is A Weapon from Marc Cherry, an FBI drama from Joy Blake and a port authority project from Barbara Hall and Erik Stiller.
Thorn won’t want to go again through the 11th-hour deal-making that saw the renewal of 9-1-1 and The Resident come down to the wire, closing literally minutes before the network’s May Upfront presentation in New York. “The Upfronts are important. We have incredible advertising partnerships. But that doesn’t mean we have to order everything before the Upfront,” he said.
NBC has handed out pilot orders to Amber Ruffin’s multi-camera half-hour Non-Evil Twin and workplace single-camera comedy St. Denis Medical from Justin Spitzer and Eric Ledgin, as well as Retta-fronted Murder By The Book, from Jenna Bans and Bill Krebs, and medical drama Wolf, from Michael Grassi, Lee Toland Krieger and Greg Berlanti, on the hourlong side.
NBC’s fall needs are limited as the network, likely at least in part with a potential strike in mind, has put three new scripted series in the can for 2023-24, Found, from Nkechi Okoro Carroll, which was moved from midseason, The Irrational, starring Jesse L. Martin, and an untitled Mike O’Malley multi-camera comedy starring Jon Cryer.
As mentioned, Quantum Leap and La Brea will be back, alongside Night Court, and don’t expect any disturbance in Dick Wolf’s Law & Order and Chicago universes, which would carry on.
New Amsterdam has ended and The Blacklist is also wrapping its run after ten seasons so there will be some medical and crime procedural needs next season. These could be taken care of by Found, Irrational as well as Murder By The Book or Wolf. There are also high-end crime procedural The Hunting Party, from JJ Bailey and Jake Coburn, and Bans and Krebs’ Grosse Pointe Garden Society, which have been put on a straight-to-series path with the opening of writers rooms. Also factoring into NBC’s 2023-24 drama plans will be Magnum P.I., saved by NBC after CBS’ cancellation, which returns for its fifth season Feb. 19 with a “sexier” outlook.
On the comedy side, single-camera series American Auto, from Spitzer, and Grand Crew, from Phil Augusta Jackson, are well-liked internally and are both in or heading into their second seasons, while newbie multi-cam Lopez vs Lopez recently landed a full season order. Young Rock might be the most likely comedy to end the same way that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s fictional political career did at the end of season two.
Given the success of Night Court and the solid start of Lopez vs Lopez, don’t be surprised if there’s more multi-camera in NBC’s future, particularly with projects such as Amigos, from Sierra Teller Ornelas, I Can’t Right Now, from Heather McMahan, and The Regal, from Brad Copeland and Kevin Hart, in various stages of development.
No broadcast network is undergoing a more profound transformation this season that the CW, which got new majority owner, Nexstar, and a new leadership, with all of its former top executives gone. Nexstar’s executives made it clear from the get-go that the goal is to make the CW profitable by going for cheaper programming. Former Pop TV president Brad Schwartz, who famously got Schitt’s Creek on American television, is yet to lay out his plans as the CW’s new President of Entertainment. At least for now, they don’t involve pilots.
“I think it will be a mix of unscripted, it’ll be a mix of scripted, and we’ll find the little holes in the market where we can break through,” he told Deadline at the time of his appointment to the CW post in November. “So I don’t think it’s as black and white, it’s just ‘Oh, you’re gonna do cheap unscripted stuff,’ I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re going to try having breakthrough content that brings in large audiences, and we’re just going to have to figure out a way of doing it efficiently.”
According to sources, the CW brass continue to try and find a financial model as they hold discussions with producers and agents about making shows for a low license fee, as low as $1 million an episode. The network also has been pursuing non-U.S. English-language titles like Channel 4’s breakout comedy Everyone Else Burns.
None of the existing CW scripted series fit into that mold, putting their future in limbo. So far, only flagship drama All American, whose pickup we hear was made as part of Nexstar’s CW purchase agreement, has been renewed for next season. The new owners already made it clear that no more than a couple of the CW’s current scripted series would make it to next season. Walker, with its broad, cross-country appeal that fits into the CW’s new direction, as well as its efficient production, would make it a candidate should the network opt to keep more scripted series beyond All American.