Networks rebuilding their schedules after a rough TV season are looking for laughs, stars or both.
Comedies make up the majority of the major-network pilots among nearly 100 hopefuls vying for next's fall schedule or midseason slots. In part that's because, Big Bang Theory aside, there are far fewer hits these days in that profitable genre.
But with cable series upping the ante, it's also harder to stand out with unusual concepts, and that's where familiar faces come in handy. CBS "has always been casting-oriented," says Carolyn Finger, who tracks development activity for Variety Insights. This year, "they really want recognizable faces on every pilot."
It's part of an overall "risk mitigation" strategy across the networks, she says. "It can be a pre-existing show that can be rebooted, an international format that's had previous success elsewhere," or a project from a name-brand producer such as J.J. Abrams, Shawn Ryan or Chuck Lorre.
"Titles that have some recognition or material (from) an existing series gives networks a lot of confidence," says ABC development chief Patrick Moran, even though it doesn't guarantee a hit. "We'll see whether they go the distance." Moran says it's also proved "a very competitive casting season" as an explosion of basic-cable dramas compete for the same pool of talent.
As usual, there are coincidences among would-be shows: NBC and Fox are mulling comedies about office assistants, while ABC and CBS have sitcoms centering on retired baseball players, played by James Caan and Patrick Warburton. And ABC, NBC and Fox are all aiming for the House vibe in drama projects centered on unfiltered lawyers with personal demons. (Two of the creators were producers of that Fox hit).
A look at network plans:
Current status: 7.8 million viewers season to date, down 6%
Top series: Dancing With the Stars (Mon., 14.8 million)
New-ish hit: Scandal
Needs: Scandal has turned into a modest hit and Nashville is doing well enough to return, but the network needs more buzzy dramas (after several strikeouts) and an overall improvement in comedy. After three seasons, The Middle and Modern Family still lack enduring Wednesday companions.
Strategy: That's one reason ABC ordered 12 sitcom pilots, aimed at potential slots Wednesday, Friday or a third night where more adult-themed humor hasn't clicked with viewers. On the family front, Trophy Wife stars Malin Ackerman as a reformed party girl who inherits a boyfriend's (Bradley Whitford) family baggage. And the network has a new take on The Wonder Years with a 1980s family comedy. In dramas, the network has a shoo-in with S.H.I.E.L.D., The Avengers' Joss Whedon's take on another Marvel franchise; Big Thunder, a Western inspired by a Disneyland ride, and its share of soaps (Gothica, Betrayal, Reckless). But it's also aiming for another standalone series like Castle in Killer Women (based on an Argentine show) and Murder in Manhattan, about mother-daughter sleuths.
Current status: 12.3 million viewers, up 2%
Top series: NCIS (21.9 million)
New hit: Elementary
Needs: Less than rivals, but Big Bang aside, its comedy ranks are thinning. Excepting Elementary, freshmen disappointed. And it still needs to clear shelf space for new shows.
Strategy: Stars such as Eddie Murphy, officially in a guest-starring role, Robin Williams, and NBC refugees Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett and Jason Lee; reboots and spin-offs including Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Teacher and NCIS: Red, a potential third version starring John Corbett; and top producers like Chuck Lorre with comedy Mom and Jerry Bruckheimer with thriller Hostages (starring Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette). Backstrom, starring The Office's Wilson as a crotchety detective, and Intelligence, with Lost's Josh Holloway as a cyber-enabled sleuth, join meat-and-potatoes procedurals including The Ordained, about a priest-turned-lawyer, The Advocates, focused on victims' rights, and The Surgeon General.
Current status: 7.1 million viewers, down 21%
Top series: American Idol (Wed.,16.4 million).
New hit: The Following
Needs: With 15 hours of prime-time hours (three of them filled by slumping Idol and X Factor), Fox has fewer slots to fill. Sunday's animation block stays intact, but the network needs broader hit comedies and more big-swing dramas. The Following "confirmed for us the help a breakthrough character or concept can give you to launch a show," says chief operating officer Joe Earley.
Strategy: Procedurals with quirky characters and comedies more men will watch are on the docket. Among comedy prospects: Parks and Recreation's producers are behind Brooklyn 99, a cop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher, To My Future Assistant is an ode to a law firm's unsung helpers, and Friends and Family threatens to derail the long-distance romance of Jason Ritter and Alexis Bledel in a reboot of Brit-com Gavin and Stacey. On the drama front, J.J. Abrams is behind Human, a buddy cop show set in 2048 in which humans are partners with androids; Greg Kinnear plays an unfiltered defense lawyer in Rake, based on an Australian series; and The Wild Blue tackles a team based on a naval aircraft carrier.
Current status: 7.3 million viewers, down 7%
Top series:The Voice (14 million)
New hit: Revolution
Needs: Lots. Though TV's top-rated Sunday Night Football will rejoin The Voice on NBC this fall, the network has the most holes to fill. A top priority remains broadening the audience base for Thursday comedies, and among dramas it wants more buzzy concepts like Revolution "that could permeate social media and not rely on our own air" for promotion, says entertainment president Jennifer Salke.
Strategy: The network has already committed to a Michael J. Fox comedy and a Dracula remake starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Other contenders include After Hours, a darkly comic look at ER night-shift workers, a redo of wheelchair-bound detective Ironside starring Blair Underwood, a modern Hatfields & McCoys update and The Sixth Gun, a "supernatural Western." NBC also cast familiar TV faces John Stamos, James Spader, Gillian Anderson and Sean Hayes, all in potential new comedies, while Martin Short and Elliott Gould lend a hand in a show built around stand-up John Mulaney. And Joe, Joe & Jane centers on a children's book author caught between his wife and best friend.
Current status: 1.8 million viewers, up 5%
Top series: Arrow (3.9 million)
New hit: Arrow
Needs: Fewer serialized teen soaps, more sci-fi and fantasy, which rank as its most popular fare.
Strategy: The mini-network now has a different calculus in defining a hit, as online streaming through its own site, Netflix and Hulu brings more eyeballs to the network's programs than its sharply declining ratings would indicate. CW is finding new takes on the teen-soap genre that defined it for so long, as Gossip Girl and 90210 graduate. Oxygen couples a human girl with an alien boy in a suburban high school, and Reign tells the teen story of Mary, Queen of Scots. A likelier bet is The Originals, a Vampire Diaries spin-off.