Pilot Season 2021: Networks Shift Strategies

Call it the pilot season that wasn’t. One year later, the COVID-19 pandemic is still casting a long shadow over the new crop of broadcast shows.

Across the Big Five networks, the majority of the pilots in contention this year are holdovers from 2020. The backlog is still being sorted out, underscoring the disruption of last spring when the public health crisis shut down work for months just as pilot production would have normally reached its peak. Some projects were scrapped and some are only now going before the cameras.

Studio and agency sources say they expect this to translate into fewer new series pickups this year, with the broadcasters largely expected to renew their existing lineups like they did last year. This year has also broken with precedent in that several networks have already made multiple series pickups a month out from upfronts, the annual broadcast showcase that typically sees a dizzying blitz of series orders, renewals and cancellations.

This year has also accelerated a trend that has played out over the past several years — the decline of broadcast pilot staffing season, which used to be the focal point of agents’ and writers’ year. According to industry sources who spoke with Variety, the lack of fresh pilots this year has been a blow to staffing younger writers and those with less series experience. However, the broadcast networks are no longer the center of the universe when it comes to hiring. One TV lit agent says that their clients have expressed little interest in staffing on broadcast shows of late, instead focusing their efforts on streaming and premium cable projects.

But even in a diminished year, pilot season still offers a few horses to watch. From millennial nuns to pro bowlers to Dan Harmon’s animated look at life in ancient Greece, here’s a rundown of projects to watch for as the broadcast nets prepare to unveil their 2021-22 schedules next month.

ABC

ABC is putting an emphasis on diversity in this year’s pilot crop. Among the orders are projects like the “Wonder Years” reboot that centers on a Black family and the Zahir McGee music drama “Queens” that boasts Eve and Brandy among its cast members. ABC has also ordered the pilot “Dark Horse,” based on an Australian format, about an Indigenous woman’s unconventional journey into politics, as well as the Latino family drama “Promised Land.”

ABC is the most ambitious broadcaster this year in terms of sheer volume. The network had only three holdovers from the 2020 pilot season on its slate this year, one of which — the single-cam comedy “Work Wife” — has already been passed over. ABC has given out one series order so far, for an untitled multi-cam comedy starring Alec Baldwin, Kelsey Grammer and Alec Mapa as former roommates who reunite decades later.

CBS

CBS ordered few new pilots in 2021, instead focusing on what was left on its slate from last year. Of the nine pilots the network had in contention when this season started, six were holdovers. Those include the political drama “Ways and Means” starring Patrick Dempsey and Troian Bellisario, and the medical drama “Good Sam” toplining Sophia Bush. The new pilots include a single-cam sitcom from comedian Sarah Cooper and Cindy Chupack, a multi-cam starring Pete Holmes based on the life of pro bowler Tom Smallwood and a series adaptation of “True Lies.” “True Lies” won’t shoot for a few more months at least.

CBS has given out two series orders thus far — one for the 2020 single-cam holdover “Ghosts” and another for a revival of “CSI” that will see original cast members William Petersen and Jorja Fox return to the Las Vegas Crime Lab.

Fox

Fox gave out no new pilot orders in 2021. It has only five pilots in contention for series orders this year. Among the more prominent of those projects is “Blood Relative” starring Melissa Leo, and “The Cleaning Lady” starring Elodie Yung, both of which are dramas. Another Fox drama, the untitled “Goonies” reenactment project, has yet to announce any cast members.

In terms of series orders, Fox announced a new animated project from Dan Harmon in February under Harmon’s broadcast network-only exclusive direct animation deal with Fox Entertainment. That show is set in mythical ancient Greece and is targeting a 2022 debut.

NBC

NBC this week gave out its first two drama pilot orders: an untitled project from Nick Wootton and Jake Coburn with Julie Plec executive producing, and “Getaway,” about a hostage situation at a destination wedding from writers JJ Bailey and Moira Kirland.

The network gave multiple early series orders to some of its 2020 holdovers. Comedies “Grand Crew” and “American Auto” and the dramas “Ordinary Joe” and “La Brea” were picked up. The network also had the drama “Langdon,” based on the Dan Brown book “The Lost Symbol,” in contention, but it moved over to Peacock with a series order. The show stars Ashley Zukerman as the title character, Robert Langdon.

The CW

The CW has arguably the highest-profile project this pilot season — the live-action reboot of “The Powerpuff Girls,” now called “Powerpuff.” Interest in the show, a follow-up to the beloved animated series, has been high since it was first announced as being in development last year. Elsewhere, the network is rebooting the USA Network drama “The 4400,” which has already nabbed a series order under the name “4400.” There is also the DC pilot “Naomi,” which boasts Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship as writers, and a millennial nun dramedy with Jennie Snyder Urman executive producing.

The CW has also given out several backdoor pilot orders this year for spinoffs of its existing shows. Those are a “Nancy Drew” spinoff about Tom Swift, an “All American” spinoff set at an HBCU and a “Black Lightning” spinoff about the character Painkiller.



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