Monday, January 24, 2011

Lots of spec pilots are selling. What does it mean?

Networks are buying a lot more spec pilots these days. A LOT more.  It used to be rare for a spec pilot to sell. My writing partner David and I sold a few down through the years, and we found it tough sledding. If the execs who didn’t make the decision were not involved in the development, they have no stake in the project and generally try to bury it. They’ll deny that of course, but behind closed doors they champion the projects they picked and nurtured, not the ones their bosses bought without even consulting them. And by the way, I don’t blame them.

Why are networks buying more and more specs this season? They’ll say it's 'cause they’re always looking for the best possible shows, no matter where they come from. But the truth?

It’s because the higher-ups look at their development slate and realize it’s shit. Specs don’t sell in August. They sell in January.

And who’s to blame for this? The development execs will claim it’s the writers. (Glenn Beck will claim it's Obama.)  Those gosh darn hacks didn’t turn in good scripts. And that excuse might have held up ten years ago. But not today. Because now networks are incredibly hands-on. It’s like being eaten to death by moths. You are not allowed to write an outline before the network approves the story area. And you are not allowed to go to first draft until the network signs off on the outline. And they rarely sign off until you’ve made all of the changes that they suggest. After the first draft you’re given more notes. By the time the script is submitted to the decision makers, it has the executives’ thumb prints, DNA, and hair all over it. All that’s left from the writer is blood splatters. So if a script is ultimately ill-conceived or poorly executed, in many cases you have to point to Obama, or at least the executives.

January is when pilots must be greenlit so they’ll be completed by mid April. And for so many specs to sell clearly indicates that the networks are panicked. It's crunch time.  (A moment here to congratulate those writers who sold these specs. Isn't it fun to beat the system?)

So let’s examine that traditional development system: If networks are paying for projects and paying for people to develop them, only to throw out said projects then isn't there perhaps, just maybe, something wrong with that business model? The networks then have to go out and spend more money to buy spec material.

In other words, the preferred scripts are the ones that did not have to be approved at every step. They’re the scripts where the writers were free to follow their vision. 

Networks can’t base their development slate strictly on spec material alone. It’s way too risky. They can’t just sit back and hope great scripts will just walk through the front door. They have to develop their own product. They have to have some control of the direction and type of shows they want to program in the future. I understand that. They want to be in business with certain writers and certain production companies and I understand that, too.

But if the resulting scripts are so disappointing that the networks have to scramble at the eleventh hour, then it seems to me the networks might want to get better development executives. And perhaps interfere less in the creative process.

Networks have always defended their business model. And a few years ago when Derr Zucker tried to do away with it to save money, the net result was that NBC had no new hits at all and nothing to take their place. It’s not the system. It’s the employees in the system. Hire better, smarter, more trusting development executives.

Think of it as “Spec People”.

Hey, seriously, what do you have to lose?

Tomorrow: to continue this theme, I'll share some crazy pilots I've worked on.  It's not just the execs.

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