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TV pilots start their descent as networks take more risks

Early spring is crunch time for TV stars and producers, as a frantic process of writing, casting and filming pilot episodes for potential TV series peaks before major networks unveil their new fall lineups in mid-May.

But some of them can rest easier this year, thanks to a big jump in the number of shows that have already won on-air commitments without a single frame of film.

The blame (or credit) goes to depressed ratings and the need to break the logjam that finds many in hot pursuit of the same stars all at once. But it’s as much Neflix’s fault: The streaming service offered House of Cards producers a two-season deal, sight unseen, and has since added other shows such as Orange Is the New Black and, on Wednesday, a comedy from the co-creator of Friends starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

“We’re competing to get creators in the door at the network who can go to Netflix or Amazon and get series orders,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “We have to show the same level of commitment, and that’s where you end up stepping up.”

United Talent Agency managing director Jay Sures says the most sought-after series have always exerted leverage over networks. The difference now is “networks tend to feel this urgency when you have multiple bidders on a project, and everyone wants to win now, so they’re willing to go to any extent. And they’ve seen Netflix go into the direct-to-series business and be incredibly successful,” at least creatively, “so they’re trying to mimic it.”

This year, a dozen series have been given the go-ahead, not counting several miniseries that represent a revival of that largely dormant genre. Fox chairman Kevin Reilly has been most aggressive, promising in January “a better, more talent-friendly, more consistently creative way” to tackle program development.

Fox has committed to 10 to 13 episodes of Backstrom, starring Rainn Wilson (The Office) as a curmudgeonly detective; Hieroglyph, set in ancient Egypt; Last Man on Earth, a deserted-island comedy starring Will Forte; another sitcom starring stand-up comedian John Mulaney; and “event” series such as Gracepoint, a remake of British murder mystery Broadchurch with original star David Tennant.

But others are in the game: CBS bought Battle Creek, a Michigan detective drama created by Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan. NBC has two comedies - one, produced by Tina Fey, stars Ellie Kemper as a cult escapee who starts a new life in New York; another stars Craig Robinson (The Office) as a middle school music teacher. And ABC ordered The Club, a Downton Abbey-style soap set at a country club, and, for summer, Astronauts Wives Club.

Sures says pilot-free programming is “a very good hedge” for programmers on a small number of projects with tested actors or writers, and it will lead to fewer spring pilots, as is the case this year. But “there’s always a greater risk if you’re stuck with 22 episodes of a terrible show.”

In what she calls a “miscalculation” based on an actor’s appeal, Salke struck out with this year’s only full-season order: The Michael J. Fox Show, which never won over audiences, though NBC - which won a bidding war against rivals - promised a full season.

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