Network pilots take off

It's pilot season. And this year, that means business as unusual
in Hollywood.

There are a pair of strikes looming, reality programming is becoming ever more tempting and the battle to co-own or do-it-yourself continues to drive the major broadcast networks.

With the Writers' and Screen Actors Guilds threatening to walk, many of the networks have greenlighted programs for the fall, bypassing the spring ritual of the pilot and upfront season. And a number of top series, including Buffy, the Vampire Slayer;Frasier
and Dharma & Greg, may be switching networks.

"It's been challenging to say the least," says Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "Besides programming for the current season, I've also had to look at summer, where we have promised to deliver original programming, and now we're preparing for a fall that may or may not include a strike."

"I don't sense that reality is playing as much of a factor in the way that development is unfolding this season, certainly the strike is," says 20th Century Fox TV President Dana Walden. "I've felt a much more speedy process from the networks in terms of ordering scripts as a result of a possible strike. People are trying to get out in front a little bit."

Peter Roth, Warner Bros. Television's president says,"It seems as if it becomes more intense each year. With the combination of a possible strike, the softening economy and ad marketplace and the rigors of vertical integration, it seems as if it has become more intense than ever."

Strike or no, all six major networks will have finalized pilot-production plans by the end of the month, with fall schedules set by the end of April. Many of the networks have already finalized their drama choices, but sitcom orders at a handful of networks will go out this week.

"Our development is amped up," says ABC Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg. "I think the only thing that will change is if we can't make the series, but we're moving ahead."

Already in production, or moving in that direction, are pilots with Richard Dreyfuss (CBS), John Stamos (ABC), Reba McEntire (WB) and former Late Night with Conan O'Brien
sidekick Andy Richter (Fox). Others in the mix include Jim Belushi and former NYPD Blue
co-star Kim Delaney (separate pilots, both ABC), comedian Bernie Mac (Fox) and former La Femme Nikita
star Peta Wilson (NBC). Former Seinfeld
stars Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are being shopped for separate sitcoms.

Producers and directors working on pilots include Darren Star (Sex and The City), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street), a pair from Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks), Greg Daniels (King of the Hill), J.J. Abrams (Felicity) and Joss Wheadon (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). Diane Keaton is directing and producing a drama pilot for Fox entitled Pasadena
and UPN is adapting Stephen King's novel Dead Zone
for the small screen. UPN also has a sitcom pilot that star's Mike Epps (Next Friday) and has actor/rapper Ice Cube on the production team.

There are two behind-the-scenes series set at the U.S. Supreme Court, CBS' First Monday
and ABC's The Bench
and more than enough dramas to go around. There are also a couple of pilots that give ordinary people superpowers, including UPN's Superguy
and Fox's Ball & Chain. And every network has at least one reality series.


CBS has wrapped up its drama developments, and network executives say the majority of comedies should be ordered by the end of the week. CBS has ordered eight drama pilots and two presentations, including a cast-contingent presentation from Tom Fontana, Hudson County. CBS Productions is producing or co-producing five of the pilots/ presentations and co-owned Paramount Network TV and Big Ticket TV one apiece. Columbia TriStar Television is involved in four dramas.

The most talked-about series in development at CBS are The Education of Max Bickford, which stars Richard Dreyfuss, and E.R.
producer John Wells' drama Second Act. The Education
pilot, from CBS and 20th Century Fox TV, stars Dreyfuss as a college professor dealing with a mid-life crisis. CBS executives say it's not a remake of Dreyfuss' Mr. Holland's Opus. Wells' Second Act
is from Warner Bros. and follows a career politician who loses his bid for the Senate.

Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, producers of former Fox series Party of Five,
are behind pilot Heart Department, a medical drama that stars Tony Shalhoub (Wings) and Felicity Huffman (SportsNight). JAG
producer Don Bellisario is teaming with co-owned Paramount on First Monday,
which follows the Supreme Court Justices and their clerks. Air Force One
director Wolfgang Petersen is trying his hand in TV, with a CIA pilot The Agency. And CBS is working on H.R.T., a series that follows an elite hostage rescue team at the F.B.I. And Paramount-based Big Ticket Television is developing Destiny, which is set in "real time" and about people having spiritual, emotional or physical crises.

On the comedy front, CBS has picked up a half dozen pilots, including 20th Century Fox comedy Say Uncle, Blind Men
from Columbia TriStar and Granada, British import The Kennedys,
and a comedy centering on popular commercial character Baby Bob. It is also developing a series with Ellen DeGeneres and ATG.


New NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker is getting a crash course on the development season. So far, Zucker has ordered NBC's drama lot-four pilots and two presentations. In terms of comedy, he says he's picked up nine so far and that the final tally will likely be 11 or 12. "I've been here for 20 minutes, so what do I know?" asks Zucker, the former Today
executive producer. "But I feel really good about where we are."

Of the six drama projects, NBC Studios is behind three; an untitled medical examiner project from writer Tim Kring, Chestnut Hill
and U.C. (Under Cover), the last a co-production with Twentieth Century Fox. La Femme Nikita's
Peta Wilson is a criminal investigator à la Erin Brockovich in an untitled drama from Warner Bros. and Anne Rice's Earth Angels
is a pilot presentation from Imagine and Twentieth. Drew Carey and producer Bruce Helford are behind an improv/sitcom series, Chuck Lorre has been given a 13-episode commitment for comedy Last Dance
and the network is developing a comedy around Latina comedian Debbi Gutierrez. And after the recent failure of Michael Richards' comedy, NBC executives are said to be taking their time looking over projects from Seinfeld
alums Alexander and Dreyfus.


Fox's Berman says the network has ordered all of its drama pilots and that a few comedy projects may get picked up over the next week or so. In all, Fox has given pilot commitments to seven sitcoms and eight dramas, including yet another Darren Star ensemble series from ATG. Fox has given episode commitments to two comedies, Judd Apatow's Undeclared
and Steven Levitan's Greg the Bunny. Greg
is a sitcom, about a sock puppet who hosts a talk show. Fox has also ordered 13 episodes of drama When I Grow Up
from Moonlighting
producer/writer Glenn Gordon Caron and Paramount.

Bernie Mac, co-star of film Kings of Comedy, is headlining a sitcom from co-owned Regency and 20th Century Fox. Former Late Night
sidekick Andy Richter is the lead on comedy pilot Anything Can Happen
from Paramount. Imagine and 20th are teaming up for drama 24, a "real-time" series, with each episode looking at happenings between midnight and 1 a.m. as seen through the eyes of a CIA agent. Buffy's
Wheadon, along with Todd Holland of Malcolm in the Middle
are teaming up for 20th Century Fox's Ball & Chain, about a couple on the brink of divorce who can earn super-human powers by staying together.


ABC has seven comedy pilots and eight dramas in development, with a few more comedies to come.

Co-owned Disney studio Touchstone is producing two of the comedies and co-producing or producing six of the eight dramas. ABC's Bloomberg says there was no concerted effort to get Touchstone programming developed and added, "As each year goes along, the number of pitches from the outside does diminish. But we want to put the best product on our schedule." Last year, ABC ordered only four new series for the fall because of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'s
success. Bloomberg won't promise more.

ABC has given a series commitment to Steven Bochco's latest, Philly,
starring former NYPD Blue
star Kim Delaney and former The $treet
co-star Tom Everett Scott. Delaney plays a "low-rent" attorney in Philadelphia. The only other series commitment for the fall is for Greg Daniels and Richard Appel's untitled romantic comedy from 20th. Also in the works at ABC is Alias, from Felicity
producer Abrams, as the story of a woman in college who juggles life as a spy. John Stamos headlines the drama Thieves
from Warner Bros., which follows two top thieves who recover stolen property for the government.

On the comedy side, Mad TV
star Nicole Sullivan is a crazed daytime talk-show producer in Me and My Needs. Jim Belushi is the father in an untitled family sitcom from Touchstone that has Ellen
producers Jonathan Stark and Tracy Newman attached.


UPN has a half dozen dramas and nearly twice as many comedies in development, and network executives are mulling a handful of reality and game shows. UPN, which is owned by Viacom, has a number of projects in development from co-owned companies: three from Paramount Network TV, two from Spelling TV and one each from Viacom Productions and Big Ticket TV. There's also a game show starring MTV's Tim Beggy in the works.

Development highlights on the drama front include projects from horror director Wes Craven, the Stephen King adaptation of Dead Zone
and a hip-hop soap opera from music video and film director Hype Williams. Howard Stern's animated comedy Doomsday
is still in development, along with The Tranny, a series starring Ru Paul as a nanny.

The WB

At The WB, co-owned Warner Bros. Television is producing eight pilots so far, including comedy Sally
with country music star Reba McEntire as a recently divorced woman with a pregnant teenage daughter. The WB has given a 13-episode commitment to Smallville,from Warner Bros., as the story of Superman as a teen. The co-owned studio is also developing a variety show with Jamie Foxx, a comedy called Bad Haircut
and I Do, a comedy about three recently married couples. It is also developing a comedy around Cedric the Entertainer, the comedian and star of Budweiser's recent Super Bowl commercials. The comedy, Cedric the Coach,
has the former Steve Harvey Show
co-star as the head coach of the worst NBA team.