The Runway: Recapping The 2016 Network Drama Pilots

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Ashish is a freelance script reader, currently reading for a coverage company and a film financing platform, among other individual clients in the US and UK. You can find out more about his services at http://scriptexaminer.com, or write to him at scriptexaminer@outlook.com.


The end of pilot season is always a little bittersweet. On the one hand, we’ll get to see the visions of the writers come to life, with a select few making it to series. On the other hand, we have to wait another nine months for a new crop of pilot scripts to be released to the world. But such is life: time — and pilot season — marches on.

Before we get into the recap of this year’s drama pilots, let’s talk trends.

Drama trends have been pretty consistent across the development and pilot seasons: remakes, soaps, and vertical integration (which Andrew has already discussed in his network comedy pilots recap better than I ever could). Underlying these, is the most consistent trend of them all: safety.

Remakes and reboots are certainly no guarantors of success (looking’ at you, Minority Report and The Muppets), but there’s no arguing away the benefits of built-in audiences and reduced marketing spends.

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ABC’s got Marvel’s Most Wanted and Still Star-Crossed (what it lacks in IP, it makes up for in soap). CBS has three high-profile IP-driven pilots in Drew, Training Day, and MacGyver. Fox has 24: Legacy, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, and Prison Break, two of which are already off to series. NBC’s got five (the Blacklist spinoff, Chicago Justice, Cruel Intentions, Midnight, Texas, and Taken), and the CW’s got two (Frequency and Riverdale).

That’s more than enough IP-driven pilots to reinforce an classic trend, and you can see the networks are reaching far and wide for that sacred built-in audience. We’ve got novels, comic books, classic television, and popular films and franchises.

A crucial, and somewhat depressing, indicator of the networks’ preference for IP is evident in the quality of the originals. Though outliers exist in shows like Bunker Hill, American Gothic, and Time, IP-driven pilots are on an average much better-written than the originals. Is this just an unhappy coincidence, or are networks allocating more resources to IP-driven projects than original properties?

All said and done, it’s clear our big five are treading cautiously in an environment where it’s getting harder and harder to find and keep audiences. They want the comfort of IP. They want to stay on brand. They want safety. I doubt we’ll be seeing any bold moves in the next few weeks, even though that’s probably what CBS and NBC need.



ABC is coming off a really rough year, as Andrew already pointed out. In a fall season of embarrassing failures, ABC also made clear its desperation to return to brand with the way it tried to “soap” Blood & Oil. It did not work. With Paul Lee gone, new President Channing Dungey should want to play it safe.

So I find it quite odd that ABC has only two IP-driven pilots in contention, throwing a heavy burden on its soaps to deliver. Heading into the upfronts where each of its competitors is likely to be leading with 2-3 IP-driven series, ABC really needs its execution-dependent pilots to deliver.

See our Runway preview of the 2016 ABC drama pilots.


Like the CW, CBS has a fairly stable drama slate, giving it some room for experimentation. That said, it suffers the same development flaw that seems to haunt all networks this season — its original pilots simply aren’t good enough.

It has also largely stayed on brand, and we’re likely to see even more procedurals come pickup time. In addition to my original picks Training Day, MacGyver, and Bunker Hill, the Nancy Drew-inspired procedural Drew is tracking well. But I still consider it underdeveloped, and unnecessarily risky in the way it reimagines its source material.

Les Moonves might have wanted more quality original material to work with this year.

See our Runway preview of the 2016 CBS drama pilots.


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On the drama front, NBC continues to be in trouble. Along with having a lot of holes to fill, its new dramas seem to be falling into a pattern of failure. Since my last notes, Game of Silence has premiered and, as predicted, fallen into Heartbeat’s unexciting pattern. No more premieres following The Voice, that’s for sure.

For the network most in need of stability and on-brand messaging, I’m not even sure what NBC’s brand is at this point. If there is a method to its madness, it doesn’t show in its pilot orders. Sure, the Blacklist spinoff and Chicago Justice make sense, but it’s other contenders are rather lackluster with the sole exception of Time, which is a risky proposition. But no risk, no reward, right?

See our Runway preview of the 2016 NBC drama pilots.


The CW’s been getting better since Mark Pedowitz took over. But as it grows, is it getting into the same developmental rut as its older competitors? Like CBS, the CW finds itself faced with some quality IP-driven pilots, and some underdeveloped, creator-driven original material that just doesn’t meet the mark.

Luckily enough, the CW could get by with picking only one pilot this season, and I’ll be surprised if that isn’t Riverdale.

See our Runway preview of the 2016 CW drama pilots.


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If anyone’s been vocal about prioritizing audience comfort and their general aversion to risk, it’s Fox. So it’s no surprise whatsoever that it recently picked up 24: Legacy and Star to series, as predicted.

That said, if Fox is willing to take some risks, it definitely has a stronger roster of original pilots than its competitors — both Pitch and Recon have potential. A pickup for Recon seems quite unlikely now that Legacy’s a go. But in a season where superstar creator-driven pilots aren’t really up to the mark, Fox might just be willing to go out on a limb and bet on Fogelman’s Pitch.

With two safe and obvious pickups out of the way, is Fox gonna throw us a curveball? We’ll find out soon enough.

See our Runway preview of the 2016 Fox drama pilots.


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Ashish is a freelance script reader, currently reading for a coverage company and a film financing platform, among other individual clients in the US and UK. You can find out more about his services at http://scriptexaminer.com, or write to him at scriptexaminer@outlook.com.

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Still quiet here.sas

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