Monday, January 24, 2011

Lots of spec pilots are selling. What does it mean?

Networks are buying a lot more spec pilots these days. A LOT more.  It used to be rare for a spec pilot to sell. My writing partner David and I sold a few down through the years, and we found it tough sledding. If the execs who didn’t make the decision were not involved in the development, they have no stake in the project and generally try to bury it. They’ll deny that of course, but behind closed doors they champion the projects they picked and nurtured, not the ones their bosses bought without even consulting them. And by the way, I don’t blame them.

Why are networks buying more and more specs this season? They’ll say it's 'cause they’re always looking for the best possible shows, no matter where they come from. But the truth?

It’s because the higher-ups look at their development slate and realize it’s shit. Specs don’t sell in August. They sell in January.

And who’s to blame for this? The development execs will claim it’s the writers. (Glenn Beck will claim it's Obama.)  Those gosh darn hacks didn’t turn in good scripts. And that excuse might have held up ten years ago. But not today. Because now networks are incredibly hands-on. It’s like being eaten to death by moths. You are not allowed to write an outline before the network approves the story area. And you are not allowed to go to first draft until the network signs off on the outline. And they rarely sign off until you’ve made all of the changes that they suggest. After the first draft you’re given more notes. By the time the script is submitted to the decision makers, it has the executives’ thumb prints, DNA, and hair all over it. All that’s left from the writer is blood splatters. So if a script is ultimately ill-conceived or poorly executed, in many cases you have to point to Obama, or at least the executives.

January is when pilots must be greenlit so they’ll be completed by mid April. And for so many specs to sell clearly indicates that the networks are panicked. It's crunch time.  (A moment here to congratulate those writers who sold these specs. Isn't it fun to beat the system?)

So let’s examine that traditional development system: If networks are paying for projects and paying for people to develop them, only to throw out said projects then isn't there perhaps, just maybe, something wrong with that business model? The networks then have to go out and spend more money to buy spec material.

In other words, the preferred scripts are the ones that did not have to be approved at every step. They’re the scripts where the writers were free to follow their vision. 

Networks can’t base their development slate strictly on spec material alone. It’s way too risky. They can’t just sit back and hope great scripts will just walk through the front door. They have to develop their own product. They have to have some control of the direction and type of shows they want to program in the future. I understand that. They want to be in business with certain writers and certain production companies and I understand that, too.

But if the resulting scripts are so disappointing that the networks have to scramble at the eleventh hour, then it seems to me the networks might want to get better development executives. And perhaps interfere less in the creative process.

Networks have always defended their business model. And a few years ago when Derr Zucker tried to do away with it to save money, the net result was that NBC had no new hits at all and nothing to take their place. It’s not the system. It’s the employees in the system. Hire better, smarter, more trusting development executives.

Think of it as “Spec People”.

Hey, seriously, what do you have to lose?

Tomorrow: to continue this theme, I'll share some crazy pilots I've worked on.  It's not just the execs.


Roger Owen Green said...

Very interesting. But seriously, on my Blogger feed, I had some Sarah Palin thing forthcoming for several hours from you, until you posted this item. I'm so confused.

By Ken Levine said...

I posted something that involved listening to audio but the audio wouldn't work so I pulled it. Sorry 'bout dat.

VP81955 said...

Does this extreme "hands-on" approach apply only to the four broadcast networks, or are cable channels getting in the act as well? (And if so, does the degree of their involvement tend to be any different?)

For example, had "Hot In Cleveland" been shopped to ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC (I can't imagine CW would have been interested), would their executives have had more meddling, er, input than the people at TV Land seem to have had?

Phillip B said...

The solution is obviously tax cuts for corporations and high income individuals...

Seriously (as if my opinion mattered) there have been attempts to break down the traditional business model over the years (spin-offs, stage shows, internet television, 8 minute pilots, story boarding, et. al.) but none seems to have taken hold.

This may be a break in the glass wall of "unscripted" shows and a recognition that younger viewers really do like the sitcom. We'll know something is really falling apart when someone odd gets the green light to develop a variety show (like Terrell Owens, Andy Dick or Meatloaf - perhaps on the same show.)

Manodogs said...

You know far better (and more) than I probably will on my deathbed, so I trust your call, but I do think the system is a bust.

I'm not business-minded, so I respect those who are, but few of them are creatively-inclined and part of the problem (as I see it) is just what you noted: All the interference with the product.

Few concepts/products are going to hit every note with every viewer, but instead of dumbing-down the product to appeal to larger audiences (though I grant this is OK, even necessary, to a certain extent), why not accept that some product is aimed at a specific demographic or whatever and roll with it on those grounds?

As always, love and am constantly inspired by your help. Many thanks and please continue!

Reboot Expert said...

Would a spec pilot be totally US focussed and a documentary? I am trying to launch Primrose HIll London UK's Violeta B's comic reboot at 51 and thought the US would like to see a snapshot of the vailant heroine, Primrose village, it's celebrities and non-Gervais humour of it's inhabitants. Really no idea how to market it in the US. Your advice appreciated.

BigTed said...

Hey Ken,

So how do development execs get hired anyway? Do they come from drama schools, or business schools (or is it one of those "work your way up from the mailroom" things)?

You'd think the sort of people who go into the profession would be creative and possibly talented themselves. Do they get this beaten out of them by the demands of the job over time? Or is it a variation on "those who can't do, teach"? (I.e., "those who can't write become TV executives"?)

Anonymous said...

Is it possible this is being done to get around the writer's union or maybe is saving money by downsizing the number of development executives (with the associated benefits packages)?

Dave Creek said...

What do these "development" people do all day? Prime time is three hours of programming a night. Two if you're Fox. Give J.J. Abrams and Ken Levine and Matt Weiner and Aaron Sorkin free rein and see what they come up with and don't bother them.

For every Studio 60 (sorry, Mr. Sorkin, I know you read here sometimes) you're going to come up with a West Wing. Your batting average is going to go 'way up.

I'd say a network programming dept. should be one person and an assistant. Get rid of the "developers" and find that one person that knows quality and talent.

I know it won't happen. But a boy's got to have a dream.

Matt said...

Friday question:

How hard (or easy) is it to keep a character's voice out of other characters? For example, in the opening scene of the Social Network, when Mark and Erica are talking, I could easily hear that as Sam and CJ on The West Wing, Dana and Casey in Sports Night or even Matt and Harriet on Studio 60. (This is not a criticism of Aaron Sorkin, by the way. I love that his characters have the same "Sorkin style" in the same way that each of his television shows contain the episode "What Kind Of Day Has It Been?"

How did you keep Sam Malone from sounding like Hawkeye or keep Helen from sounding like Diane?

Phillip Stamp said...

The fact is the business model has already changed, and traditional broadcasters haven't learned from the collapse of the music industry. People are already sick of broadcast Television as an entertainment delivery system. They are already recording/downloading what they want from where they can get it, because the broadcasters aren't meeting their needs.

Our needs, I suppose I should say.

As a result, broadcast revenues are going down, and fewer shows are given the development incubation time they need. So there is a certain desperation to get something and hope the shotgun approach will work. Fact is, there's an audience for a lot of series that haven't made it past a first season, or even a pilot because the distribution isn't reaching the people interested, or the feedback isn't going to the broadcasters. There are so many examples of this, if I were to list them, it would take hours.

Broadcasters need to wake up, learn from the death of the music industry, and realize we're not living in 1975 any more.

joe said...

This is good news to me as I am sitting on a gold mine of specs.

Now, all I need is to find someone to read them.


Interesting. It is good to know that even at the top the struggle continues. And of course this would not neccesarily repeat itself. Keep the creative juices flowing and know you are well appreciated