Behind the scenes, network TV has provided us with much chaotic news in the last year. However, pilot season itself has only produced 63 pilots and very little to write home about. It definitely is not inspiring any belief that series orders will reach the number of inclusively cast shows last year.
In a year where leadership has changed drastically for all networks but The CW and streamers like Netflix continue to create content at an alarming rate, it’s unsurprising that the networks would order less pilots than last year. But a drop of 17% is high.
Only newly branded Fox Corporation ordered one more pilot than last year. ABC dropped by seven, likely to put money towards orders in the future now that the Disney/Fox merger is complete. CBS and NBC each have two fewer than last year at 16 and 13 respectively, with The CW ordering only six. Technically there’s a 64th pilot, NBC’s direct to series order for another SVU spin-off, now indefinitely delayed. FOX also ordered two straight to series animated series.
Most of the decrease in orders is in the drama section with 36 vs. 45 last year. That leaves 28 comedies, with an almost even split between multi-cam (12) and single-cam (11). Per usual, there are three major content areas. Procedurals, family stories, and shows based off of already existing intellectual property are numerous. A total of 13 shows are spinoffs, reboots, based on foreign shows, novels or comics, and two are based on real stories!
Pilots by the Numbers
At ABC, reboot NYPD Blue and sequel New York Undercover both look good for orders. Though ex-Freeform head of originals Karey Burke has stated she wants to bring women back to the network. Losing that demo spot to NBC must hurt. Everything else she’s ordered—minus Triangle, a serialized legal drama, and Stumptown—are about families or romantic relationships.
Nothing different at CBS. They split their orders eight and eight with an expected spinoff from FBI. Only one drama, Republic of Sarah, is not the usual cop/special forces/medical show with a twist premise. Among the comedies, The Emperor of Malibu follows in the success of Crazy Rich Asian while the rest are your usual premises.
FOX, too, evenly split their orders between dramas and comedies with a similar makeup of shows as CBS. Their focus on animated comedies and procedurals with a random soapy family drama thrown in is expected. They’ve lost their studio and lost Friday night in October to WWE Smackdown. Filthy Rich, by the way, is about rich Christians and their illegitimate children and actually sounds chaotic in the fun way. I’d definitely try it! Their one live action comedy that stands out to me is Patty’s Auto, which follows a repair shop with lady mechanics.
With Law and Order: Hate Crimes delayed, NBC likely wants Lincoln, an adaptation of the Bone Collector book series, to do well. They’ve also got a musical dramedy and a magical comedy. Of the Big 4, they have the most diversity in premises, which isn’t much.
The CW has a version of The Lost Boys and Nancy Drew, and three spin-offs with Batwoman, Jane the Novela, and Katy Keene. Personally the only one I’m excited for in this batch is Nancy Drew, which needs to succeed if only for CBS Studios trying to make it work for the third time.
Its one original show, Glamourous, is one of three original pilots this year to make me sit up with interest with its gender non-conforming high school grad working at a cosmetics company premise. The lead, Ben J. Pierce, is both gay and genderqueer and if it gets picked up, I’ll be the first to celebrate.
Still, casting this year is definitely not as inclusive as last year.
Inclusive Casting Cool-down
Networks have a limited number of actors to cast who are talented, popular, and fit the role. Plus they have to want a broadcast role. Netflix and every other streamer casts year-round and 63 pilots isn’t that many characters anyways. Many actors who fit all four requirements are going with streaming. Lucy Liu for example, off a six year stint with CBS, will lead Why Women Kill for CBS All Access with Ginnifer Goodwin, back in the game after OUAT ended.
Streaming also offers shorter filming periods for more money, at least for leads with strong resumes, and I assume similar is happening for writers and other personnel. After all, everyone else puts writers rooms together year-round. Big writers and producers are moving to streaming permanently as well.
To be fair, there have been multiple actors of color cast for main lead roles, including those coming from cable or streaming back to broadcast. Harry Shum Jr. for example, now that Shadowhunters is done (boo), is one lead for Heart of Life at ABC. Still, I don’t think the number of shows with inclusively led casts will beat last year’s 80% of shows that had two or more leads of color (a low threshold, admittedly).
Best case scenario, a number of shows will have multiple leads of color and not because the show stars a family of one ethnic background. And this doesn’t take into count LGBTQ actors, disabled actors, or otherwise marginalized identities rarely seen on broadcast.
The Future of Broadcast
In the short-term, networks will continue buying from their vertically aligned studios. Especially as even Netflix and other streamers are focusing on their own studios. Sony Pictures TV has five co-productions this year, the same as last year. There are only so many people who fit all the boxes and are open to broadcast. If this paltry pilot season has shown us anything, it’s that the networks are holding onto their resources. Come May, I expect a few shocking renewals even though the ratings are depressing for everyone.