Buyers seek originality at the L.A. screenings.
After the New York market, the action moves to the west coast where the international TV community gathers for the "organic" Los Angeles Screenings. This year's Screenings will take place May 18-28, with May 18-23 reserved for the indies and May 22-June 2 dominated by the studios (with a break for Memorial Day).
The 2004-2005 season has seen some huge hits (think ABC's Lost and Desperate Housewives) and some major flops (e.g. CBS's dr. Vegas), so the networks will attempt to put their best feet forward and find the next great hit for the studios to sell internationally.
The roster this year shows some trends and, of course, some attempts to recreate the glory of past shows. There is a new mode of meta-television (television shows about television shows) taking over the small screen. An untitled Tina Fey sitcom on NBC and the WB's Nobody's Watching, both focus on sitcom writers. ABC's untitled Chris Kattan sitcom takes place at a B-list cable network. UPN drama The Studio centers on 20-somethings who work at the back lot of a major studio.
Hollywood seems to be a little preoccupied with procreation as well, with Fox and NBC both offering up drama series set in fertility clinics. Fox's is called Born & Bred and NBC's has been christened Inconceivable.
When it comes to professionally focused shows, tried-and-true law and new-and-noteworthy real estate business reign supreme. In the legal realm are ABC's In Justice, about lawyers who attempt to help the wrongfully accused, and Laws of Chance, based on the real life of ADA; CBS's Conviction, about a defense attorney-turned-prosecutor, and American Crime, a Jerry Bruckheimer drama about a suburban mom who's also a prosecutor; Fox's untitled drama about a lawyer with a nervous breakdown who pairs with a lawyer riddled with anger-management issues; and the WB's Dog Town Lawyers, a drama about a teenage lawyer and his cynical mentor.
The real estate genre seems to be burning up, with both dramas and sitcoms set in the world of buying and renting residences. ABC's Westside takes place in the upscale L.A. real estate world; Hot Properties is a sitcom about four female real estate brokers.
Not surprisingly, popular 2004-2005 pilot series Lost, Desperate Housewives and Medium are being imitated in 2005-2006. The supernatural aura behind both Lost and NBC's Medium can be seen resurfacing in WB drama Supernatural, CBS's untitled drama about the life of psychic James Van Praagh, and ABC's Night Stalker, about a detective who faces the supernatural. UPN's Triangle, about a man who stays on an island after his wife is killed on their honeymoon, is eerily reminiscent of Lost as well.
When not experiencing the supernatural, one character on NBC's Book of Daniel is talking to God, a la CBS's Joan Of Arcadia.
Mimicking the other hot new show of the past season--Desperate Housewives--are CBS's Commuters, a soapy drama about women who live in the suburbs and have husbands who work in New York City, and ABC's Soccer Morns, about two suburban mothers-turned-private detectives, which mixes the mystery and domestic genres the same way Housewives does.
Another series being copied is the critically acclaimed but low-rated Arrested Development, with many cross-network sitcoms adopting that show's one-camera style.
"There's too much copying among the networks," said Ellen Baine, vice president, programming, CHUM TV. "There is not enough originality. You don't see anyone but ABC being original with their programming. The extension of the brands (i.e. CSI and Law & Order) is also a problem." Jay Kandola, head of acquisitions at the U.K.'s Channel 4 agreed: "We don't need any more procedural dramas." She explained: "What Lost and Desperate Housewives did well was they both took a genre that was well-known, but the ingredients were tossed together in a new and fresh way."
This year, ABC was the comeback kid of network TV. Though the network has 12 new dramas slated and looks set to keep pumping out hour-longs to the masses, they are in no way ignoring sitcoms either, with 15 in production.
CBS, which remains far ahead in overall viewers, is tied for first place with regards to the coveted 18-49 demo. With the net losing Everybody Loves Raymond, the last consistently high-rated sitcom on the air today, at the end of the season, it will need to create a new laffer to take its place; it is trying with 10 comedy pilots.
Fox, the tie-holder in the 18-49 demo, is continuing its year-round launch schedule and not waiting for the fall season to debut shows. Fox will continue to target younger audiences with recognizable celebrities. And as American Idol continues to be a reality force-to-be-reckoned with, even in its fourth season, the chances of Fox abandoning its now (in?)famous reality programming are slim.
NBC, which has gotten a lot of stack this year after falling from the number one spot, with critics wondering how it will ever relive the glory days of past sitcoms Friends and Frasier, was still able to claim the number one sitcom of the season in Joey. There certainly were flops though, like the network's Father of the Pride. This season, NBC will again try to come up with sitcoms that are actually funny. Though drama LAY was cancelled early, Medium was successful, so there seemed to be hope in that genre too. The Biggest Loser soared to the top of the reality charts among viewers 18-49.
Armed with the experiences of the past year and a gaggle of future expectations, buyers will descend upon the L.A. Screenings to choose the hits and (inevitable) misses of 2005-2006. Jeff Ford, managing editor and director of acquisitions and drama at the U.K's Channel Five, which only airs non-U.K.-based sitcoms at present and has seen great success in Joey, said that his company comes to the L.A. Screenings with their eyes on the prize. "We are reviewing the shows that could be the mainstay of the following year's schedule ... the next big hit. U.S. shows still offer something exciting and new that we are not doing in the U.K." He explained that it is crucial for them to attend in order to see the shows and trends and to "keep Five front of mind to the studios." Roberto Buzzoni, director general, programming and acquisitions at TV Globo said that he goes to the Screenings looking for animation and new films and since the majors present those at the Screening as well, it is imperative that he attend. Buzzoni explained that since his company doesn't buy series, "the Screenings are only a means to get acquainted with the new tendencies of American programming." At the screenings, TV Globo will be looking for "theatricals, made-for-TV or made-for-cable/video [movies] and animations. We are looking for funny home videos, curiosities, candid camera shows, formats and specials sold by independent producers," he said.
CHUM's Ellen Baine, who does buy U.S. series, explained that the L.A. Screenings are particularly important for Canadian broadcasters because of the heavy penetration of American TV signals into Canada, "Canadians have access to the American networks, so we need to buy the programming, and day and date it all so that we have the hottest new shows and they haven't already been watched on the other nets. No other country relies on American shows as much as we do," she said.
Baine, however, admitted that "the L.A. Screenings can be grueling. When you are watching so many pilots, you can't always get it right." Baine also explained that she likes to attend the network upfronts before the studios' screenings, so that she can get a sense of what non-buyers and "regular viewers" like and dislike.
Weeding out the good from the bad is a difficult process, with no magic formula. This is evident in the almost unanimous ambivalence the international buyers had when it came to Lost. "Last year, when we saw the pilot, none of the international buyers liked it, but obviously the public did. We were all wrong," said Baine. Channel 4's Jay Kandola felt the same way, "I was definitely impressed by the production of it all--by how much money J.J. Abrams had put into it--but with this one, a lot of us wondered how it would go on. It seemed more like a miniseries. Now, I realize that it's like an onion and you can take off layer after layer. It could go on for a long time, the same way The X-Files did."
When it comes to dramas versus comedies, Kandola said her company looks for both. "Though you can have enough dramas (and specifically procedural dramas), comedies are jewels; you can never get enough of them." She also pointed out that Housewives proved that "people really like dramedy and we were missing that." And given the fact that none of the comedy pilots have achieved anywhere near the same success that the dramas have, sitcom writers should take note of the suggestion. "The problem with this year's comedies was that people played it far too safe. You thought you'd seen everything already."