Broadcast Still Trying to Find the Next Friends

Same boring lineup

On the heels of a 2012-13 broadcast television season in which the networks have failed to deliver a runaway hit, the Big Four and the CW are digging deep. But as is so often the case, the creative capital on display in this development season doesn’t seem to reflect the megadollars being spent in the pursuit of the Next Big Thing.

At last count, the English-language nets had ordered 104 scripted pilots, up 17 percent from last spring’s 89, at an estimated cost of around $2 million per comedy and $5.5 million for each drama. Half of these projects will aim for the funny bone—workplace and single-parent comedies abound—while the other half present a stew of the tried-and-true: international imports, revivals, literary adaptations and the hoary cop show.

Given the tepid returns delivered by this season’s freshmen—each broadcast net has but a single new “hit” on its hands, although only NBC’s Revolution is averaging as much as a 3.0 in the 18-49 demo, and it’s been on hiatus since Nov. 26—one might expect programmers to take bigger swings in 2013-14. But for a few oddball prospects, this is not the case.

“It’s the same old stuff, presented in the same old formats,” said Brad Adgate, svp, research, Horizon Media. “Ten years later and they’re still trying to find the next Friends. There are nine or 10 ensemble comedies where you have a group of twenty- and thirtysomethings. We’ve seen it all before.”

While it’s not surprising that the networks continue to invest in vehicles promising a lowest-common-denominator audience—the first syllable in “broadcast” is there for a reason—they appear to be overlooking at least one proven winner. “I’m surprised they’re not trying out more shows based on graphic novels,” Adgate said, noting that AMC’s The Walking Dead is the top-rated show on TV and based on a wildly popular comic book series. “Why not? Twelve million viewers with a median age of 32? The networks would kill for that.”

Despite the potential to launch with an established audience of loyal readers, only two of this year’s pilots are based on existing comic book series. The one that seems almost certain to make a splash is S.H.I.E.L.D., a one-hour drama based on the Marvel Comics universe. Executive produced and written for ABC by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the titular espionage agency was featured in Whedon’s 2012 theatrical The Avengers, the fastest film to gross $1 billion.

Also in the works is The Sixth Gun, NBC’s supernatural western based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt. Lost fanboys take note: Carlton Cuse has signed on as the series’ showrunner. Cuse was an integral part of the last showstopper of a development season; 2004-05 gave rise to the three ABC hits: Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and, yes, Lost.

Some would argue that broadcast simply isn’t built on big ideas, and failure is just the price of doing business. “When there were three networks, 80 percent of the shows failed,” said Gary Carr, svp, executive director of national broadcast, TargetCast tcm. “They still do—they just fail faster now.”